Dramady Steel Magnolias (you probably know the 1989 Sally Field/Dolly Parton/Shirley MacLaine/Daryl Hannah/Olympia Dukakis/Julia Roberts film) was first staged in ’87. The story, about a group of women in Natchitoches, La., was written by playwright Robert Harling around the death of his sister.
The local production at Asheville Community Theatre is directed by Michael Lilly and runs through Sunday, Aug. 18. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.. Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Mother-daughter reviewers Becky Upham and Cicely Upham discuss.
Becky: Cicely, thanks to a popular but short-lived early ‘90s parenting technique that involved keeping you in an underground cave, you had never seen the movie Steel Magnolias. You may have been the only person in the audience who didn’t know what was going to happen to Shelby.
Cicely: Well, now I have to see the movie with some unsuspecting victim so the power dynamics can shift for once! I still shock and awe people when I tell them I haven’t seen Titanic or Forrest Gump, but in this case I was happy to be able to see this show in its original format first. It felt more authentic that way.
Becky: I haven’t seen those movies either, but that’s another review. This play is such fun! There were lots of big laughs; it had more zingers than a Hostess cupcake factory.
Cicely: You got that right. It was like watching the sassy grandmothers and aunts I never had trying to one up each other. My personal favorite came from Clariee Belcher, the cheerful football-loving widow, when asked about her childhood Christmas traditions: “Why, Jesus wasn’t even born until I was a junior in college.” Ha!
Becky: I think this is an important play to see as a cultural reference, and a truly southern piece, but lacking in the diversity department. I can’t help but think about The Help when I see this, though this was the ‘80s…the “me” time, not the “be a social activist” time.
Cicely: While I can’t say much about the ‘80s, seeing as I wasn’t born, it was really fun to see the way the women dressed and did their hair. Since the whole play takes place in a beauty salon, an emphasis on the hair and makeup was well warranted. I also thought the costume designer, Deborah Austin, did a perfect job of choosing pieces that were understated yet distinctly ‘80s. Everyone loves a good pair of legwarmers, but they’re not always the appropriate choice.
Becky: I loved that this play uses the pursuit of beauty as the primary action and setting, but that its real focus is female strength and “it’s what’s inside that counts.” Mothers, take your daughter to this play if you want a positive story about women supporting each other, and having a blast doing it. I also kind of loved it that no one ever once talked about weight or exercise. Jane Fonda had not yet arrived in Natchitoches, Louisiana. What did you think about the characters?
Cicely: I was surprised that there are no male roles in the play. This is impressive in 2013, so I can only imagine that it was rare in the 1980s.
Becky:: I thought Joan Atwood, who plays Clairee, and Carla Prigden, who plays Ouiser, were particularly strong. These two will be discussed as feisty old lady archetypes in drama classes for hundreds of years to come. That being said, I thought that the characters were very well drawn. There weren’t the “pretty one,” “smart one” and “jock” kind of stereotypes that you often get with ensemble pieces.
Cicely: I agree. I think it helped that there was such a clear age range with two younger girls, two middle aged women, and two older women. These age divisions are more distinguishing than a stereotype, anyway. Shelby and Annelle’s naiveté was obviously a product of their inexperience, which was why the older women could impart wisdom without it seeming hokey.
Becky: Yes, and they are aging gracefully. That’s another thing these ‘80s ladies have on today’s Real Housewives. And maybe that’s why my comments on the play seem to be so much more insightful than yours…
Cicely: … (Crickets chirping)