Review of Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias is a very popular show for smaller theatres to mount, regardless of the fact that it debuted Off-Broadway over twenty years ago. An all female cast, the mixture of raucous comedy with weepy drama, and a down-home Southern-style demeanor guarantees a crowd pleaser — if that crowd is largely filled with sensitive people looking for laughs, coupled with a moderate emotional catharsis and a heavy side of 1980s fashion, décor and small-town stereotypes. The success of the 1989 film based on the play provides a widespread familiarity sure to guarantee a healthy audience through Flat Rock Playhouse’s run, despite the fact that the show ultimately feels dated both in style and substance.

The show follows three years in the life of a small town beauty parlor and the six women whose lives revolve around its sponge curlers and hairdryers. Truvy, the salon’s owner, serves as the centerpoint of the action, the grand master of primp, the caretaker of the location that serves as a reason for everyone to get together on Saturday mornings.

The other women range from a cantankerous old biddie named Ouiser who is preoccupied with the state of her nervous dog’s health, a wealthy widow socialite who has a way with the casually dropped zinger, and a mother and daughter, M’Lynn and Shelby, who provide the dramatic intensity and arc of the show.

The first act takes place while Shelby is getting ready for her wedding day, during which it is revealed she has been told she should not have children due to her diabetes. By the end of Act I, Shelby is three months pregnant, despite doctor’s recommendations, thereby reducing her mother M’Lynn to a awkward congratulatory yet passive aggressive stance on the matter, as her daughter’s health is now in more danger. The remainder of the show, though punctuated with the lesser plotlines revolving around the lives of the other four characters, is anchored in Shelby’s illness.

The bulk of the performers in this show have Broadway and Off-Broadway credits, and some have even played the roles they are currently playing before. In particular, Rebecca Koon’s portrayal of Claree can only be described as effortless; the funniest lines fell from her mouth with perfect comic timing and grace, and she inhabited the set with the ease of someone who obviously was very much at home.

Diane J. Findlay’s Ouiser was a bit warmer and more accessible than one might expect, and she frequently hugged other characters immediately after delivering a acerbic statement of derision. These actions humanized her character more, but also had the result of making her less distinct among the wry and witty gaggle of Southern ladies.

Marianne Fraulo, as M’Lynn, seemed to be going through the motions a bit. From the top of the show, she appears more frustrated by her daughter’s stubbornness in respect to her health than concerned. Some of the dramatic punch is drained from the last scene of the play, when M’Lynn is finally letting her vulnerability show, due to the lack of vulnerability shown by her at any other time during the production. However, overall as an ensemble, the actors have a solid chemistry and grace about them that provides for an evenly paced two hours.

It cannot be denied that there are ample opportunities to laugh during this show, even if one has seen the movie many times. Consequently, the last scene was met with audible sounds of weeping from the audience, an unsurprising result considering the emotional impact of the events onstage.

Those who are going to see this show knowing exactly what they are going to experience will not be disappointed. The set and costume design are thoroughly authentic 1980s small-town style, and beauty-sink realism is in effect right down to the Aquanet hairstyles created onstage by the actresses. However, the show also has the distinct feeling of being a museum piece, a bit dusty and clunky, and for theatergoers in search of something challenging, revelatory, or simply beyond the old school drama-empathy-catharsis arc, there isn’t much here.

Flat Rock Playhouse’s Steel Magnolias offers plenty to the segment of the population in need of a good laugh and a one-tissue cry. For the rest of the theatrically inclined, it may be time for a new way to explore the dynamics of female friendship beyond the beauty parlor.

Lighting Design by Robert P. Robins, Scenic Design by Dennis C. Maulden, Directed by Scott Treadway. Shows Wednesdays through Sundays through May 23. Wednesday-Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Flat Rock Playhouse. (828) 693-0731 or www.flatrockplayhouse.org.

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10 thoughts on “Review of Steel Magnolias

  1. sculptorgirl

    Thank God for Mountain Express for being the ONE publication that tells the truth about Flat Rock Playhouse. While our small theater companies in WNC struggle and sacrifice to survive and produce drama that shapes and betters society, our supposed “State Theater of North Carolina” panders to the senior citizens producing hackneyed war horses that insult the audience. STEEL MAGNOLIAS should have been shelved twenty years ago, not to mention half of the shows they do. Filling seats and hiring New York actors is not what true theater artists/producers should aspire to do. We must challenge the norms, push the envelope and invoke thought. Flat Rock Playhouse is an insult to intelligent theatergoers everywhere.

    While we are at it, it’s disappointing that our local stars like Willie and Charlie sell their souls and principles to appear there. They may as well work at Dollywood. Until Flat Rock Playhouse prioritizes on focusing on more challenging theater and NC artists, their State Theater Title status should be revoked and all funding from Raleigh should be eliminated. Keep that money in the pockets of NC actors.

  2. TheatrePro

    SculptorGirl says, “Until Flat Rock Playhouse prioritizes on focusing on more challenging theater and NC artists, their State Theater Title status should be revoked and all funding from Raleigh should be eliminated.” Flat Rock Playhouse supports its activities almost entirely from earned income and contributed income. In 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, government grants were less than 1.5 percent of its total budget: approximately $50,000 in a budget of almost $4 million. Much of its revenues come from ticket sales and subscriptions, almost $2 million. While one can argue with the taste of the people who buy those tickets, it would be difficult to dispute that those people are spending their money as they wish and that the Playhouse has found its audience. The title of “State Theatre of North Carolina” is an honorific and carries no aesthetic value judgment nor implies any oversight by any State agencies.

  3. whatever

    i think sculptorgirl should have went and seen “My Own Song” that just closed at FRP. MtnX didn’t even review it. Too bad because it was what she claims FRP is not. Also. It is eaiser to have avant garde and unknown works at a 100 seat theatre for a few days than at a 500 seat theatre for a month. There are a lot of mouths to feed in these productions and if you are not worried about the box office then you are foolish. FRP is taking some chances this season. Look at their schedule. Of course it is always hard to please a theatrephile.

  4. Avid Dramatist

    Please, I think there is room in Asheville for all kinds of theatre and all kinds of theatre audiences. The reviewer mentioned that the play seems dated and might not be for adventurous audiences so those of us who want more can be warned and not trek out to Flat Rock for this one.

    But a few notes and comments:

    Reviewer, I think you mean “widow” and not “widower” unless they have added a male character while I wasn’t looking.

    Sculptorgirl, Holy, moly I can’t believe you named names!

    Sharkbear, I will be laughing for the rest of the day! Thanks for the funniest comment I have ever read on this blog. I must know who you are!

    Whatever, “went and seen” is atrocious grammer.

    Thank you all for making my day!

  5. Tiger Lilly

    Though I sympathize with the critic’s view of the value of the play, it’s a bit ungenerous to disparage the authentic reactions of an audience.

    Though personally, I like more “serious” theater than Flatrock generally presents, I think it would be wise to note that prejudices come in all shapes and sizes: some prefer light entertainment, others more challenging theater. Isn’t there (or shouldn’t there be) room for both that are well done? I, for one, see know need to ever view the good faith efforts of people making theater in a competitive or judgmental fashion, and, certainly, the folks at Flat Rock not only do what they do in good faith, they support the efforts of the smaller more “arty” theater of their northern cousins.

    God probably doesn’t care about this stuff either way… so thank Her if you like, but She probably is busy dealing with an oil spill at the moment.

  6. come on, no way I'm giving my name

    Might want to ease up on the vitriol there. The idea that Flat Rock Playhouse is some sort of evil behemoth, taking funds away from “true” artists is ludicrous. For crying out loud, it’s a non-profit arts organization – and one, by the way, that actually manages to pay its artists a living wage. Do you know how rare that is?

    As for the review, eh – about par for the course with Mountain Xpress. There’s a fairly blatant double standard when it comes to professional versus amateur theatre. I look to the Mountain Xpress for previews and interviews, not credible reviews.

  7. come on, no way I'm giving my name

    Might want to ease up on the vitriol there. The idea that Flat Rock Playhouse is some sort of evil behemoth, taking funds away from “true” artists is ludicrous. For crying out loud, it’s a non-profit arts organization – and one, by the way, that actually manages to pay its artists a living wage. Do you know how rare that is?

    As for the review, eh – about par for the course with Mountain Xpress. There’s a fairly blatant double standard when it comes to professional versus amateur theatre. I look to the Mountain Xpress for previews and interviews, not credible reviews.

  8. skiplunch

    WOW, Sculptorgirl, changing the world with every text. Here’s an idea, maybe we should take all the sculptures, pottery and crafts that are over twenty years old and put them in several of those U-Store -It bins. Who wants to see that stuff again and again. If any of the wonderful performers out at Flatrock Playhouse happen to read this nonsense please know that the majority of serious theatre people in this area (all ten of us) are delighted you are here.

  9. LetsGo!

    I saw Steel Magnolias and rather enjoyed the flash back. I knew exactly what I was getting into with that fluff. I also like meatier fare.

    I’m really looking forward to Twelve Angry Men. Flat Rock Playhouse is putting it up in the old court house on Main Street in Hendersonville. That’s one of my favorite shows.

    I’m thankful for the diversity of theater in this area, and appreciate the chance to see what I want and say what I want!

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