Southern roots, universal appeal

Fresh vision, solid performances bring life to much-revived 'Steel Magnolias'

May 14, 2008|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Sun

While beauty-shop camaraderie will appeal more to women than men in the audience of Prince George's Little Theatre's production of Steel Magnolias, the strong friendships and barbed wit that allow us to cope with hardship should have near-universal appeal.

Robert Harling's comic play was first produced off-Broadway in 1987 with an all-female cast and ran for 1,126 performances. In 1989 Steel Magnolias became a movie starring Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts in a role that garnered her her first Oscar nomination. Steel Magnolias has since seen reincarnations everywhere, including a 2005 revival on Broadway. It would seem a daunting task for a local theater to bring any fresh vision.

Veteran actor/director Ron Wilder succeeds, however, because he genuinely appreciates this play recalling his Southern roots and his mother's weekly beauty shop visits. He also shares with playwright Harling the sad experience of losing a younger sister, a fact that adds substance to this life-and-death story. Wilder has support from a six-woman cast and a set design and construction crew that created a complete-with-running-water beauty salon transformed from a carport.

When the play opens in a small Louisiana town, genial beauty shop owner Truvy has just hired a dim, awkward young assistant, Annelle, with a mysterious background. Annelle must learn to cope with regulars like Clairee, wealthy widow of the mayor. Another customer, Shelby, arrives to have her hair done for her wedding that evening, as does her mother, M'Lynn, showing concern for her diabetic daughter. Last on the scene is acid-tongued regular Ouiser, forever warring with M'Lynn's husband, who taunts her dog.

Mother and daughter engage in the familiar dialogue of overprotective mother trying to let go and daughter expressing her own identity. Shelby's bridesmaids will wear a shade of pink, and the church will be trimmed to match in the same color, which her mother describes as "looking like someone hosed it down with Pepto Bismol." Later, M'Lynn tenderly deals with Shelby's sudden seizure, warning us of the impending tragedy resulting from Shelby's risky pregnancy and worsening health.

Banter is essential to these women of different generations who share strength, pride and warmth. Together they trade wisecracks: Truvy's philosophy is, "There is no such thing as a natural beauty," and Ouiser explains, "I'm not crazy, just in a bad mood for 40 years." Clairee's line, "All gay men have track lighting," elicited laughs that grew when Ouiser mentioned her nephew having recently installed her track lighting.

PGLT performances are uniformly solid. Hillary Mazer creates a strong, gregarious Truvy with biting wit. She missed a few lines the evening I saw the show, and she wasn't quite convincing as a professional hair stylist, but these are minor quibbles in an overall solid characterization.

As Annelle, Cassie Youhouse expertly winds hair curlers, and conveys her evolution from bewildered to born-again while missing no chance to go for a laugh.

Linda Smith plays Clairee, starting a new life as a radio station owner, as a classy independent woman who knows how to deliver a comic barb.

Gayle Negri creates a multidimensional Ouiser, a breathing woman, not a mere caricature.

The relationship of mother and daughter M'Lynn and Shelby is central. Meg Yednock's Shelby is a brave young woman who wants to experience all of life. Rosalie Daelemans plays M'Lynn, a serenely self-assured socialite who trades quips with the best of the regulars while expressing a selfless love for her daughter that includes supporting her decision to have a baby, donating a kidney and remaining at her bedside during her final illness. Much of this experience is recounted in the show's dramatic peak.

"Steel Magnolias" continues at Bowie Playhouse in Whitemarsh Park at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Information: www.pglt.org or 301-937-7458.

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