Playing thru August 14, 2010

CEDAR CITY — Every year I travel to Southern Utah to take in the Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City as well as some Tuachan action in St. George. And every year I see signs for the Neil Simon Festival and tell myself next year I’ve got to check that out. Well this year I did and I will not make the mistake of missing the Neil Simon Festival again. I was a little confused to learn that Steel Magnoliaswas a part of the Neil Simon Festival seeing as it wasn’t written by Neil Simon, but Robert Harling. I discovered the Festival not only celebrates the work of Mr. Simon, but also work that was inspired by him or in the same vein.

Most of us at one time or another have seen the popular 1989 movie version of Steel Magnolias starring, among others, Julia Roberts and Sally Field, but it was a play first, and the original script was written by Harling in 1985 and after much acclaim was adapted into a movie. The play, much like the movie, draws you in by the endearing characters, and I left the theatre a little embarrassed of the tears streaming down my face.

This quaint story takes place in a hair salon small southern town of Chinquapin in Louisiana and centers on the lives of 6 woman who meet every Saturday to dish the dirt on the local townsfolk. Each new scene coincides with a turning point in the life of the show’s main character, Shelby. With each visit we learn more about the 6 ladies that frequent the shop and discover the irony of these unlikely friends.

The show is semi-autobiographical in sharing Mr. Harling’s own experience of losing his sister and, despite the fact that this play deals with some pretty intense subject matter, the cleverly written script is filled with intermittent humor and makes for a fun night as well as an emotional one. Ouiser always seems to have a witty comeback to Clairee’s continual stabs at the old bat. And the awkward nature of Annelle and her lack of life experience also helps to keep the audience on their toes. Even in the end of the second act as M’Lynn breaks down and unleashes the grief she feels with the loss of Shelby, the tension is broken as Clairee holds down Ouiser and offers to let M’Lynn wail on her to help her feel better.

In this production, there were a few moments in the second act that the background music became so loud it was distracting to the scene, but overall the show was very enjoyable. Shelby, played by Whitney Morgan Cox, was by far the show’s strongest member. With superior acting and exceptional timing, Cox presented a truly believable character that you fell in love by the end of the first scene. I found myself so drawn to her throughout the show there were even minor moments when she bordered upstaging the other actors.

The show’s setup was a definite plus. As you enter the large theatre, you are directed on stage where there are 150 stadium seats set up in a semi-round. Having the audience right there on stage, I felt like part of this circle of friends, right there in the hair salon. While this set up created a sense of audience involvement, this is where my only criticism of the show stems. If seats are still available, I would strongly suggest finding seats in the center section or as near to the center as possible. I got the sense that the actors were not used to playing to an audience that wasn’t in the traditional proscenium setting. Throughout the show I feared for the patrons to each side and worried some very crucial lines and scenes were being missed. Not to mention the fact that a large majority of the lines were delivered upstage where there was no audience at all. The biggest culprit being Annelle played by Kristen Henley. I was seated in the center of the center section and spent most of the show looking at the back of her head. So my biggest critique…we wanna see your faces!

So overall a very cute production with solid acting and an amazing script. Missing the Neil Simon Festival in Cedar City is not a mistake I plan to make in the future.

The Neil Simon Festival’s production of Steel Magnolias plays at the Heritage Theater (105 N., 100 E.) in Cedar City.  Performances are Wednesdays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Fridays at 2 PM.  Tickets are $20-25 (with a 10% discount for buying tickets to all three of the festival’s productions) and can be purchased by calling 866-35-SIMON or by visiting the festival’s web page.