"We enjoy being nice to each other. There's not much else to do in this town," says Truvy, the amiable proprietor of the Louisiana beauty shop that serves as the backdrop for Robert Harling's play, "Steel Magnolias."
Nice to each other? In truth, Truvy, her assistant Annelle and their four loyal customers of varying personalities and generations stretch the outer boundaries of "nice to each other" beyond recognition.
These six strong, perceptive women collectively feed a reservoir of love and understanding that nurtures them when the vicissitudes of life come a' callin': widowhood, marital stress, family conflict, illness and, ultimately, death.
"Steel Magnolias," currently running at the Colonial Players of Annapolis, is a funny, emotional, unpretentiously human play that is, at once, warm and insightful.
The sassy resilience of these remarkably original women keeps the emotionalism from becoming oppressive and, in the end, one is uplifted by the way the preciousness of their friendship affirms the preciousness of life for all of us.
As Truvy, the good-natured beautician who'd "walk on her lips to avoid criticizing anyone," Martha Manning admirably creates her place as the unthreatening inquisitor and willing listener whose unquirky solidity draws out the hopes, fears and eccentricities of those around her.
Annelle is a wonderfully drawn character whose personal and theological ditziness provides much amusement, yet whose childlike simplicity yields profound clarity when the chips are down. Alexia Rein plays her for all she's worth; the rich nuances of her personality come vividly to life whether she's making coffee with water that had recently been boiling hot dogs, decking the halls with her goofy home-made Christmas ornaments, or trying mightily to make sense of the sadness life sometimes has to offer.
Tissie Bowen's Clairee, the wife of the town's deceased mayor, is an easy character to underestimate for, at times in Act 1, she seems more interested in chit-chat and recipes than in life. Deceiving indeed, for in the heaviness of Act 2, she becomes a source of irreverence that unexpectedly shifts moods and dispels any soap operatic tendencies the dialogue might engender.
Bowen, I'd have to say, seemed a little studied in Act 1; her timing was a tad slow and her movements, particularly one cross, were measured, but she became the powerful force the script calls for by the time the second act rolled around.
By far the most complex character on stage is M'Lynn, mother of a headstrong daughter, a professional psychologist and a critic of the good ol' Southern values. According to her, Southern men only know how to shoot it, stuff it, or marry it.
Darice Clewell's M'Lynn takes on all conceivable female cliches and dismisses them one by one. Prissy, snooty and the very model of an overbearing mother for a time, she shows her true colors by becoming as selflessly supportive as any mother could be.
She seems the long suffering wife of a good ol' boy, yet we hear that the marriage solidifies in the face of tragedy. While reserved and detached, she is able to reach out to others in her grief and allow others to touch her.
Clewell's performance is as complex and ultimately rewarding as her character. Her heart-rending Act 2 monologue proves the truth of her observation that "it's hard to be a pillar of strength with your eye make-up dripping down your chin." (I don't wear mascara, but you get the idea.) As M'Lynn's daughter, Shelby, Laura Auldridge grows on stage from a headstrong, somewhat bratty kid to a secure young woman unafraid of tough choices. She creates a character who inspires both affection and admiration. When she is gone, we feel her loss.
Auldridge's gestures and expressions aren't quite as varied as those of the older pros on stage, but the total effect is positive indeed.
Hitting the audience like a ton of bricks is Dorothy Wardell's Ouiser, a feisty, nasty, good-hearted old dame whose 40-year pout has been tough on her neighbors, but goes real easy on a laughing audience.
The "Steel Magnolias" set is prodigiously designed and all production aspects are exemplary. Shelby's diabetic spasm is particularly fascinating to watch. Built into the tense action is a 360-degree turn that gets the whole audience involved in her illness.
What a lovely play this is. Truvy tells us early on that the motto of her hair salon is "There's no such thing as natural beauty." But after two hours in her shop watching her and her dearest friends, we know that simply isn't true.