Theatre Reviews
Photo by Phillip Hamer courtesy of Stages St. Louis

For its current production of “Steel Magnolias,” Stages St. Louis has assembled a finely tuned ensemble of six actors whose big mouths are matched only by their big hair and even bigger hearts as they deliver punch-gut pathos amidst a flurry of Southern-fried wit and wisdom.

A winning production of "Steel Magnolias" hinges on the cast’s ability to authentically embody the complex layers of camaraderie and resilience that define the relationships among the characters. It requires a delicate balance of humor and poignancy, with actors adept at delivering both the witty banter and the heartfelt moments. This production checks all those requirements – and more.

This is no small feat considering this play, written by Robert Harling, premiered off-Broadway in 1987, was adapted into a star-studded Hollywood film in 1988 (released in 1989), debuted on Broadway in 2005 and was adapted as a television film in 2012 with an African-American cast. Bonus points for anyone who remembers the single airing of a two-hour pilot for a “Steel Magnolias” sitcom in 1990 that CBS passed over.

My first encounter with “Steel Magnolias” was the film, which I liked but didn’t love. But I also didn’t forget it. To this day, I channel my best Olympia Dukakis as Clairee Belcher at my own family gatherings and declare, “If you can’t say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me.” The youngsters in my family have heard me say it so often the actually believe this is my own phrase – and I’m not about to correct them.

I agree with the critic Hal Hinson of The Washington Post who said that the film felt “more Hollywood than the South.” The film also veered a bit too far into melodramatic sentimentality. The Stages production does not suffer from either of these problems. It manages this by hewing to the original script and emphasizing the actors’ abilities to project their characters unfettered by celebrity personas.  

The play is set completely at Truvy’s, a beauty salon where the four-act narrative unfolds as the women navigate life’s joys and sorrows with wit, resilience and unwavering support for one another – peppered amply with snarky humor. There are men, too, but they are heard but not seen. It’s clear from the start that a man’s place is not in the beauty salon. The salon is a sacred space for the women. As Truvy herself says of her own husband, “He’s scared to death of this place. He thinks people are running around naked or something.”

The use of the salon as the crucible for the narrative calls to mind something the character Samuel Peacock says in John Ford’s “Stagecoach”: “…I feel quite at home…In my way, I suppose I’ve had more advantages than any of you. From the blessings of civilization.” His use of blessings shares the same double meaning as “Bless your heart” – if you catch my Southern drift.

The phenomenal set was designed by Kate Rance, who designed the set for last year’s “AIDA.” That set was one of the best – if not the best – elements of that production. Rance makes similar effective use of LED tubes as a roofline above Truvy’s. The tubes frame the stage with light and enhance the “bigger than life” role that the salon plays for the characters. Plus, they’re just plain ole cool lookin’.

The intimate set, with a color theme of pink, in keeping with the character Shelby’s preference for that spectrum of hues, bespeaks quality, from the wash stations to the styling chairs. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting design effectively illuminates the set as if it were a museum exhibit. That’s important since “big hair” and all its accoutrements are one of the play’s consistent – and most consistently funny – themes.

Whereas the character Shelby became the center of the filmed “Steel Magnolias,” Paige Price has more rightly directed this production with a proper focus on the ensemble of actors. The strength of the characters, their distinct personalities, and the dynamic interactions among them is one of the most compelling reasons to see this production.

Weaving in, out and around this set, the actors work harmoniously to deliver a compelling and memorable performance based on strong characterizations, humor and wit, emotional depth and relatability. In his “Notes On Lyrics,” Oscar Hammerstein II noted that “The most important ingredient of a good song is sincerity.” The same applies to theatrical performances, and this ensemble has genuine sincerity in spades.

Vividly and authentically portraying the six main characters are Jilanne Marie Klaus as Truvy, Abigail Isom as Annelle, Kari Ely as Clairee, Taylor Quick as Shelby, Amy Loui as M’Lynn and Zoe Vonder Haar as Ouiser. And like the other off-stage men, Kurt Deutsch plays the Radio DJ, who is heard but only “seen” through the radio on set.

The actors elevate the play’s sharp, witty, rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, filled with Southern humor delivered in a generic Southern accent, with a consistent and satisfying balance of humor and poignancy. The emotional depth and the way the actors handle serious themes with grace and sensitivity, especially during the emotionally wrenching fourth act, contribute to the compelling emotional authenticity of this play. They achieve this through their chemistry, and the dynamism of their acting.

“Steel Magnolias” continues at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center through June 30. Ticket information is available on their web site.

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