Imagine you are an actor and the curtain is about to rise on a performance as you realize you don’t have your lines memorized. Add to that, you are performing at the Guthrie Theater in it’s 700 seat McGuire Proscenium Stage. Well, that is probably something like what Laura Leffler the Assistant Director of Steel Magnolias felt at the Saturday November 9th’s Matinee performance. Sally Wingert stepped out onstage before the beginning of the show and informed the audience that a member of the cast was very ill, and that the Assistant Director Laura Leffler, who had been there through all the rehearsals, had agreed to step in. We were told that she would be reading from a script. The MVP for that days production was without a doubt Laura Leffler. In true “the show must go on” tradition, Ms Leffler stepped up and ensured that a theater full of people who had set aside time to see the show were able to do so. The show was a success and Ms. Leffler got the largest cheers and applause at the curtain. I had intended to write a review of that performance, but when the Guthrie graciously offered to let me attend another performance, I decided that would be for the best. I realized while it gave me an interesting hook into the review, it wouldn’t be a review of the show that my readers would be seeing. So I attended the show again last night with the full cast in place and that is the performance I will be reviewing. I wanted to acknowledge though the wonderful job that Laura Leffler did stepping in for Adelin Phelps, it was brave and she did a great job.
Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling was first performed in 1987 and was followed by a popular film which Harling adapted for the screen himself. It is set at Truvy’s Beauty Salon in a fictional parish in Louisiana called Chinquapin. It opens with Truvy, played by Austene Van, trying out Annelle’s hairstyling talents on herself and then offering her a job in her salon. Normally Saturdays Truvy reserves just for the ladies from the neighborhood which are Clairee, Ouiser and M’Lynn. Clairee played by Amy Van Nostrand, is recently widowed, her husband was the former mayor of the city. She is well off and at loose ends with how to spend her time and money now that her husband has passed. Ouiser played by local legend Sally Wingert, has the opposite temperament of Clairee who is always upbeat. Ouiser is always grumpy and sarcastic and seems to have a lifelong feud going with her neighbor M’Lynn’s husband Drum. M’Lynn is played by Melissa Maxwell, her daughter Shelby, played by Nicole King, is getting married that day so Truvy is going to do a special hairstyle for Shelby. We learn over the first scene about the characters and their relationships to each other. We learn that Shelby suffers from Type 1 Diabetes and we learn of Annelle’s husband who is in trouble with the law and has run off leaving her stranded without money or a job. The play jumps forward three times from there covering about 3 years in the lives of these six women. The main plot line follows Shelby from her wedding day to her pregnancy announcement and through her health complications. But each of the women have their own stories, which while not the central focus, do run throughout so they all become three dimensional characters.
Played by Adelin Phelps, Annelle is a down on her luck naive girl with a past who needs a helping hand and a support system, which is what she finds at Truvy’s. For the six women in this play the salon is their support system. We follow them as they come together to celebrate and to console each other. The Salon is like a prism through which we see all the different shades of these woman’s friendship. We see them tease one another, build each other up, advise and comfort each other. All of it done with humor and wit that is derived less from one liners and jokes but from character. Each of the actresses brings their characters fully to life. We learn bits and pieces about all of these woman as the play progresses. Each scene gives us new information to add to what we already know, nothing is an offhand remark, every scrap of dialogues informs our understanding of each character. It really is a remarkable script, there doesn’t seem to be a line in the play that doesn’t either further the plot or develop our understanding of the characters. You couldn’t have a play this good without a fabulous script which Steel Magnolias certainly has. The other critical element is the cast, and every single member of this cast is equal to the script. The oldest characters Clairee and Ouiser are the most comical and Van Nostrand and Wingert play the humor to the hilt, but they never allow it to overpower their characters. They have a peice of business in the last scene that has the audience in tears of laughter just as we were tearing up out of sadness.
The set is a full scale mock up of the hair salon which Truvy’s husband converted from a carport in the last romantic gesture she can remember from him. The set rotates 360 degrees as the scene changes, the backdrop of a large tree and its branches also changes to reflect the season. The turning of the set and change of the leaf colors on the background nicely convey they passage of time, the leaves charting the change in season and the set turning like the hands of a clock. In an odd choice, we see stage hands decorating the set as it rotates. This has the effect of taking the audience out of the play momentarily. I can’t help but think a better solution would have been to leave the set turned 180 degrees while the set changes took place and then completing the other 180 degrees of the turn to present us the stage with changes made. Otherwise the set is impressive and well designed. I enjoyed the costumes as well, they had an 80’s vibe, but not in a overpoweringly obvious way, more what people wore day to day in the 80’s than the way you’d dress going to an 80’s costume party. Finally a word should be said about the hair. I was rather impressed to see Van and Phelps actually doing the other four woman’s hair on stage. The wigs were excellent and the actresses looked like they had been styling their whole lives.
Steel magnolias is a funny and warm look at the relationships of six woman in a small town and the support system they have created for each other in Truvy’s Salon. Filled with great character motivated humor it also plumbs the depths of despair, the full spectrum of the human condition is on display. This is a show where it’s fair to say you’ll laugh and you’ll cry, I recommend everyone taking at least 4 or 5 kleenex in with you, there will be tears. The show runs through December 15th at the Guthrie Theater in the Mcguire Proscenium Stage. for more information and for tickets go to their website at https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2019-2020-season/steel-magnolias/