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.