Six women’s lives play out in a Louisiana beauty parlor in Steel Magnolias, a two-act play by Robert Harling that was made into a star-studded film in 1989. I’ve never seen the movie, but I found the stage version engaging, as directed by Lorraine Tennant and Matt Gaska at the Endicott Performing Arts Center.
Over the course of nearly three years, at the end of the big hair decade of the ’80s, we get to know Truvy, the salon owner; her new employee, Annelle; Truvy’s friend M’lynn; M’lynn’s daughter, Shelby, and a couple of older shop regulars, Clairee and Ouiser (pronounced weezer), who supply much of the play’s broader comedy.
The beauty parlor, which is in Truvy’s home, includes the requisite salon items, swimming pool blue walls and AT&T’s famous Trimline wall phone, which allows the males on the women’s periphery to be heard, although not seen. The very authentic sets and scenery are by Jeff Envid.
The salon is a gathering place that equalizes the women, although each comes from a different socio-economic place. Because of the lack of cultural differences, however, these women communicate in a milieu that is narrowly scripted but still fascinating to us northerners.
They really love each other, and it shows in the smallest exchanges between them. There is an understanding of who each one is and the place they occupy in the drama of the lives that unfolds, slowly, before us. They all know the most intimate truths about each other and have no bones about making the new girl in town spill it. What’s her story?
Melanie Norton plays the pretty and naive newcomer, Annelle, whose life has taken some interesting turns. While not the main character, Annelle’s story appeals to the others’ curiosity, and Norton conveys a lot without having to say too much at all.
Talia Saraceno is Truvy, the compassionate, sweetly trampy shop owner whose warmth makes her place a welcoming second home for her friends. “I have a policy here. I never let anyone cry alone,” she says. It’s not a brothel, but her character reminded me of Belle Watling, the madam in Gone With the Wind. Her smile is infectious but hides the sadness that being an empty-nester is about to bring to her.
Jean Graham is M’lynn, the steeliest of these magnolias (tough, yet delicate at the same time). Graham releases, in each appearance, her maternal grasp on her daughter, Shelby, who is about to get married. Shelby, tenderly played by the slight and beautiful Francesca Decker, is the frailest of these flowers and more like the baby’s breath she insists on wearing in her wedding day hairstyle, despite her mother’s protests. Decker’s portrayal is poignant. As her mother lets go, Shelby grows stronger, finding her own voice. Graham is barely old enough to play Decker’s mother, but she does it with amazing stage presence.
Julia Mahar, a familiar facer at EPAC, plays Clairee, a woman readjusting to life after her husband, the town’s mayor, is replaced. She misses the limelight afforded a “first lady” but finds a new passion as owner and “color commentator” for a local radio station. Mahar’s performance was funny, although the acoustics in the theatre made it hard to hear her voice at times.
Paula Bacorn is the larger-than-life Ouiser, Annelle’s landlady and self-proclaimed “old southern woman,” but even she finds something to look forward to as she ages. The affection between her character and Mahar’s is a nice departure from some of the more serious things that happen to others in the play.
Although definitely a chick script, Steel Magnolias was penned by a man. Harling who was inspired by events in his own family, succeeds beautifully in capturing, through lots of dialogue but very little action, a good amount of small-town Louisiana wit and charm. He does this without turning the women into caricatures.
EPAC’s production, however, teeters a bit on that line with the use of some pretty awful wigs, which I found distracting. Fortunately, the actors wearing them manage to make their roles believable, even if their hair is not.
IF YOU GO: Steel Magnolias opened Friday (Feb. 10). Performances continue at 8 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 11-12) in EPAC’s Robert Eckert Theater, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. For tickets, call 785-8903 or visit http://www.endicottarts.com/