By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The Steel Magnolias are in bloom again. Robert Harling's all-woman 1987 play, full of sap, sass and silliness, is a favorite of regional theaters large and small. Despite its hokey writing and its jolting second-act turn from light comedy to weepy tragedy, it's a popular, versatile piece.
Like Southern women's hair, it can be teased up big and glossy the way Contemporary Theatre of Dallas produced it two years ago or presented in a simpler, more natural (meaning cheaper) style the way the Pocket Sandwich Theatre is doing it now. Each approach has its merits, but there's something about PST's unglamorous, age-appropriate cast and unfussy staging (by director Jamie Baker) that works a little more magic than expected.
The setting is a small-town beauty parlor in Louisiana. The owner, snappy-talking Truvy (Cynthia Mathews), serves as stylist, therapist and peacemaker to a small group of neighborhood women that includes saintly middle-aged mother M'Lynn (Dona Safran) and her headstrong newlywed daughter Shelby (Jordan Hall); rich widow Clairee (Alice Montgomery); and grouchy, wealthy old Ouiser (Lisa Anne Haram), who swears she's "been in a bad mood for the last 40 years." The gals use Miss Truvy's as their personal clubhouse, showing up more for the coffee and girl-gab time than a wash, set and comb-out.
As the play begins, Truvy is sharing her strict philosophy of hairdressing with nervous young Annelle (Ginger Goldman), a prospective employee fresh out of beauty school. "There is no such thing as natural beauty," Truvy declares, doing her part to deplete the ozone layer by clouding the air with cheap hairspray.
Hot gas is this play's true stock in trade. With cutesy names and Heart of Dixie accents, Harling's women try to out-rant each other on topics ranging from nail polish colors and shoe sizes to the hypocrisy of some born-again Christians and the likelihood of men named Rick and Steve to be homosexuals. Steel Magnolias is so talky it barely allows its characters to pause for breath between syllables. Yakkety-yak, yakkety-yak, everybody spewing one-liners that sound like T-shirt slogans. "Smile--it increases your face value," says Truvy. From Ouiser: "She's so dumb she thinks Sherlock Holmes is a subdivision." And from Shelby's big moment: "I'd rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nuthin' special."
Women never sound like this except in stories Rick tells Steve about colorful Southern belle relatives.
The first 90 minutes of this Steel Magnolias are serviceably entertaining, like back-to-back reruns of Designing Women. It's the last 30--after one of the main characters dies offstage--that get real close to something special in PST's production. Safran is particularly good, torn up by the grief of M'Lynn's meltdown speech.
The ensemble members, a blend of professional actors and experienced part-time amateurs, work well together. Jordan Hall is a Shelby who's the right age for the role and who looks just pale and frail enough to believably portray a girl with delicate health issues. The other standout performance is Goldman's spindly physical turn as the dumb-but-lovable Annelle. She gets more out of the runaway-wife character than is written on the page, a feat she also accomplished playing a snooty, neurotic New Yorker--Annelle's urban opposite--in Richardson Theatre Centre's recent production of Neil Simon's Rumors.
The play goes as mushy as an uncooked hushpuppy at the end, but the warmth of the final scene, where the women hold a maternal powwow about the meaning of life, has a nice ring of realism to it. Many in the opening-night audience, including a group of "Red Hat" ladies, were laughing through their tears as the cast came out for their bows.
Taking one of its infrequent breaks between popcorn-tossing spoofs and melodramas, Pocket Sandwich Theatre plays it safe putting on a chestnut like Steel Magnolias. But even if the clunky writing curls your hair, somehow the heartfelt acting nails it.
Director Susan Sargeant got her cast together for only a few rehearsals, but with actors such as Marisa Diotalevi (a regular at CTD), Heather Henry, Tippi Hunter, Megan Kelly and Elise Reynard saying the words, the performance was nearly as riveting as a full-on production (and based on the strength of the reading, let's hope they do one). Impressive newcomer Tonyamas Moore and Actors Equity member Derik Webb rounded out the cast.
Pieces of A Piece of My Heart too closely resemble some of the more serious half-hours of TV's M*A*S*H, which depicted the combat medical teams during the Korean conflict. But there's powerful stuff here too, including some gut-twisting revelations about the effects of Agent Orange on the health of the nurses and their offspring. When the Veterans Administration denied the existence of any disease connected to exfoliant chemicals sprayed over Southeast Asia, the Army nurses, like the uniformed "grunts" they treated in the war, were left wondering why the country they served had turned its back on them.