PROVO — Steel Magnolias at the Covey Center for the Arts is a heartwarming romp. Set in a 1980s beauty salon in Northwest Louisiana, Steel Magnolias is dripping with southern charm and familial humor. Anyone who loves the 1980s in all of its poofy, leg warming glory will love this production. The all-female cast is powerful and hilarious, creating an intimate atmosphere that is alluring, complex, and rarely falls flat.
Steel Magnolias was written by Robert Harling in 1987 following the death of his diabetic sister. One of the main characters, Shelby, is also diabetic, and deals with struggles of the limited medical resources developed during this time period. The play feels hardly like a tragedy, however. This ensemble of six women is lighthearted and energetic, each character textured and unique. Each scene takes place in the same beauty salon over a period of about three years.
Scenic artist Luke Woolfe creates a set design which immerses the audience as soon as they enter into the black box space. The coolest part? It doesn’t feel like being at a play. Instead, I felt like I was going to get my hair blown out. With tile floors and tacked-on celebrity wall posters, the space has toned down colors and worn furniture, feeling like a slice of everyday life. I found this particularly pleasant because many designers feel that theater must be a spectacle, and yet, this skillfully designed, intentionally mundane set instead allows the actors and their story to be the spectacle. My brain accepted the space as mine and the characters’ reality, drawing me deep into the story.
Simply put, this production is solid in nearly every aspect, especially in the acting and pacing. With direction from Skye Cummins, each actress is not only remarkable individually, but they work beautifully as a familial unit. It was like I was watching friends, siblings, or cousins interact, oblivious to the audience surrounding them. Sincerely, I believed not only that these characters love each other, but the cast members do as well, and that was something truly special to witness. True or not, the love and level of comfortability among this cast is incredibly believable. There has been beautiful ensemble work done with this cast, and this united feeling changes the entire experience of a night at the theater. I commend the entire acting and directional team for their ensemble work and the safe creative spaces that appears to have been created.
The pacing of the production is engaging and intentional. The majority of the show is quick and comedic, adding hilarity to otherwise mundane plot points. This swift pace is often initiated by Kelly Cook playing shop owner Truvy, who excels at keeping up the energy among the 6 women throughout the story. This swift pace of the first half of the production is juxtaposed drastically in the final scene. Lengthy pauses beautifully and effectively let the audience know that something has changed. At that point, the audience sits in the longevity of the silence, an atmosphere which incites feelings of contemplation and pain.
Each actress is solid in this production. Cook not only maintains the energy of the production, but executes excellent accent work and diction. Laurel Lowe, playing Annelle, is a delightful contrast from the rest of the characters, most notably in the first act. The actress’s subtle facial expressions and shifty eyes are incredibly endearing, making me care about her right from the get-go. Karen Bard as Ouiser is a hoot and a half with her comedic timing and unwavering grimace, whose demeanor is pleasantly contrasted with the outgoing and physically expressive Luone Ingram as Clairee.
My favorite pair of actresses in the production, however, is Sydney Dameron as Shelby and Shaunna Thompson as M’Lynn, playing her mother. The interactions together are so genuine I felt like I was watching myself and my mom. These actresses really listen to each other, establishing a focused connection that allows them to work off of one another beautifully. Thompson brings home the money in the final scene, making my favorite line of the production “That was funny,” as she doubles over, laughing through tears.
I have only a few gripes with the production. One is the sound design. At times certain cues are called early, and a few of them are simply too loud, such as the phone ringing and “We Built This City,” which was distracting from the scene. Some of the music choices could be more intentional with setting the tone of each scene, such as the final scene. And in that scene, I wish all of the actors would show just a little bit more grief at the loss of someone they loved. All would be deeply affected by such a circumstance, not just persons related by blood. Finally, before walking into the production, a crew member waits with a box of tissues, telling everyone who goes in that “this one’s a crier!” I wish that that had not been spoiled for me.
This production of Steel Magnolias beautifully explores the relationship between humor and sorrow and is a hopeful reminder that there is often room for both. With an incredible ensemble of a cast and a solid production team, Steel Magnolias at the Covey Center is perfectly styled.