The laughter leads smoothly to tears with Black's finesse in 'Steel Magnolias' Review: Director and cast show a deft touch with this Southern comedy and tear-jerker at Cockpit.

June 19, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias" starts out like a comic country-western song and ends up a bona fide tear-jerker.

Under F. Scott Black's direction, the cast in the Upstairs Cabaret at Cockpit in Court handles this shift in tone with finesse.

The action takes place in Truvy Jones' small-town Louisiana beauty parlor on a series of Saturday mornings when the regulars gather for their weekly wash, set and gossip. But this temple to vanity turns out to be more of a balm for the soul than a cure for split ends.

Though each of the regulars has her story, the core of the plot -- based on the playwright's sister's life -- concerns a mother and daughter, M'Lynn and Shelby Eatenton. There's lots of the mother-daughter rivalry between them. M'Lynn says of the pink color scheme Shelby has chosen for her wedding, "That sanctuary looks like it's been hosed down with Pepto-Bismol." But Judy Shannon and Lauren Spencer-Harris make the fondness between M'Lynn and Shelby unmistakable.

The play begins on Shelby's wedding day, and the bittersweet tone is set early, when this diabetic young woman begins to lapse into a coma while her hair is being bedecked with baby's breath. The next scene takes place the following Christmas, when Shelby announces she's pregnant. After intermission, she's had her baby, but a pall hangs in the air, and by the final scene, when Shannon's M'Lynn says, "I've made everybody cry," her statement refers to the audience as well.

Soapy -- absolutely. But "Steel Magnolias" is aptly titled. Half of Truvy's regulars may seem like silly Southern belles and the other half like eccentric fruitcakes, but these women are tough as steel, and Cockpit's cast earns them the respect they deserve.

The chief fruitcake is the permanently outraged Ouiser Boudreaux, played at full tilt by Betty Corwell. The actress' exultation in the role is obvious when she lifts her chin and declares: "I am not crazy. I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years."

Truvy's new employee, Annelle, is almost as loopy. Mary Beth Stapleton wisely keeps her portrayal low-key, but Annelle's eccentricity is assured after she finds religion and decorates the shop Christmas tree with hair curlers and baby Jesuses.

The surrogate mother-daughter relationship between M.L. Grout's philosophizing Truvy and Annelle mirrors that of M'Lynn and Shelby. In case you can't figure this out, Annelle not only marries and becomes pregnant during the play, she vows to name her baby, "Shelby." Subtlety is not "Steel Magnolias" strong point. But that's as it should be for a play set in a beauty shop where big hair is literally the height of fashion.

And speaking of big hair, Truvy, the proprietress, has one of the best lines in Harley's compendium of one-liners. In tribute to John Waters, she proclaims: "I have always wanted to go to Baltimore, I hear it is the hairdo capital of the world."

Ya gotta love a play with a line like that. Cockpit's cast clearly does, and their affection carries over to the audience.

'Steel Magnolias'

Where: Cockpit in Court, Essex Community College, 7201 Rossville Blvd.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 30

Tickets: $10 Call: (410) 780-6369

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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