CEDAR HILLS — Steel Magnolias is a favorite play because the script is so well written that it gives companies the framework to create enjoyable productions. The production at the Creekside Theatre Festival is better than most and features some fine performances that make it blindingly obvious why Steel Magnolias is so beloved.
Steel Magnolias tells the story of the happenings at Truvy’s salon in rural Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana. Truvy, her employee, and customers are a tight group of friends who band together to celebrate one another’s joys and support one another in their trials. Through it all, these women show that beneath their tender exterior is a strong soul that can endure any hardship.
An ensemble cast is only as good as its weakest performer, and that is good news for Creekside patrons. All six actresses give vivacious performances that are a pleasure to watch. There are some standouts, though. Shaunna Thompson is a powerhouse as the protective mother M’Lynn. Thompson exudes care and concern in her scenes with her stage daughter, Shelby (played by Jeanelle Huff). In Thompson’s portrayal, M’Lynn meddles in Shelby’s life out of love, and I never questioned the character’s devotion to her daughter—even when the two were fighting in the second scene. Thompson also has a visceral moment in the final scene in which M’Lynn expresses her grief to her friends, creating a catharsis that rewards the audience handsomely for their time.
Huff portrays Shelby as a downhome girl who is enjoying her first steps of independence. Huff makes Shelby the main source of tenderness in the group, such as when the character brings Annelle (played by Krista Galke) into the group. Huff’s portrayal lacks staginess. Thus, when Shelby talks wistfully about her fiancé and wedding plans or imagines being a mother, the character feels as real as any human being. As a result, the emotional stakes are high when the final turn of events occurs. Jayne Luke was the play’s principal comic relief in her performance as Ouiser. The character is prickly and disagreeable, but as the play progressed, Luke gradually showed Ouiser’s gentle side. As a result, when the character cries in the final scene, it is a believable outgrowth of the character’s psychology and a satisfying contrast to her behavior in the first scene.
Directors Crystal Myler and Shaunna Thompson understand how to direct a naturalistic play. The real challenge was helping the actors create interactions that felt like they arose from years of friendship. The directors admirably succeeded in this goal. Mostly, though, the directors just got out of the way of their talented cast and let the actors and script do all the hard work.
Brian Hadfield’s set design facilitated the directing and performances because of its varying levels upstage and the decorations that created a nice backdrop for the characters. I could easily imagine that Truvy had carefully chosen the 1980s glamour shots on the walls, the pastel colored hair products, and the pink hair accessories to make her salon welcoming to her customers. The worst technical aspect was the low volume of the sound in the first act, though this problem was rectified after intermission.
Despite my high praise for the artists, I cannot shake the feeling that Robert Harling‘s script is maudlin. Notwithstanding the sappiness, the script works because it serves its audience a slice of life; the characters deal with everyday challenges, and audience members do not need to be female or Southern to relate to them. Add in the humor that arises from believable, friendly interactions, and it becomes obvious why the play has a well deserved status as a workhorse in the American theatre scene. Still, I had difficulty being fully swept away, probably because the play is not aimed at cynical male theatre critics in their late 30s.
As productions of Steel Magnolias go, Creekside has succeeded in forging a production that amply surpasses expectations for this show. It has been a long time since I have seen a straight play that allowed me to bask in the talent of a well trained cast for two hours. Productions like Steel Magnolias show that the Utah theatre scene is gradually returning to normal as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, and I encourage audiences to see it.