This Peterborough Players production deserves a longer run than it has in the company’s inaugural winter season.
Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Staged by Peterborough Players, 55 Hadley Road, Peterborough, NH, through February 26.
By Jim Kates
A review of the Peterborough Players production of Steel Magnolias must begin with Charles Morgan’s set, perhaps the busiest stage I’ve ever seen at this stage, every square inch of the walls and furniture asserting its place and purpose, a Louisiana beauty salon with the exuberant fulness of an eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosities.
This location is critical to the play. Playwright Robert Harling has wisely centered his script around the sociological importance of beauty salons as a safe and nurturing environment for women, and the busy-ness of Morgan’s realization of the location defines not clutter or claustrophobia, but protection.
In this safe space six women act out their relationships to each other and to the events outside their four walls, dissimulating and distilling their emotions in wisecracking and camaraderie presided over by the proprietor of the establishment, Truvy Jones (Brenny Rabine) who functions as a kind of mistress of ceremonies. Rabine deftly guides the action between the poles of “It is up to us to find why we are put on this earth” and “Things are getting a little too serious.”
She and two of her regular customers, Clairee Belcher (Kathy Manfre) and Ouiser Boudreaux (Pamela White) provide the backdrop for the more dynamic evolution of Jones’ young assistant Annelle Dupuy-Desoto (Alycia Kunkle) and the more critically serious drama of a mother and daughter, M’Lynn Eatenton (Lisa Bostnar) and Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie (Katelyn Manfre).
In the first act, Bostnar’s M’Lynn gives off a dry, negative energy, underneath which we sense the maternal caring and warmth that will blossom in the second act. Shelby does not reveal her own warmth and life right away, occupied as she is by the details of her imminent wedding, but Katelyn Manfre makes us care for her deeply before the end of the first act, so that we become invested in her fate, which proves almost too dire for the bantering tone of much of the play.
Annelle is the most vulnerable of the six women, the ingenue, as it were. The script leaves large gaps in her development over the two years that the action of Steel Magnolias spans, but Kunkle’s nimble portrayal of the character’s youth and innocence explains the character’s evolution. At the other end of the spectrum, White’s rangy and wired Ouiser enters the scene more heavily armored than the other women; the softening of her shell is the subtlest shift of all.
Least realized in the text of the play, and therefore the most difficult to project as a distinctive character, is the widow Clairee. She brings in the possibilities as well as the threats of the world beyond the walls of the salon — both of which become seriously embodied in the challenges for Shelby.
Gus Kaikkonen’s direction sacrifices Southern verisimilitude for comedic and dramatic snappiness. We know the dialogue has to move forward quickly for the play to work well as live theater, but no actual Southern conversation ever moved at the New York pace he imposes. Still, it is a choice that keeps Steel Magnolias from a written-in threat of coming across as maudlin.
(This may be the place to pause and remark that, in general, regarding most of their productions that require regional specialization, the Peterborough Players could use the services of dialect coaching. This is a consistent minor weakness that company members generally overcome by sliding mostly out of dialect into ‘general’ speech, and that I usually leave unmentioned in my reviews.)
I assume that the costume designer Anthony Paul-Cavaretta takes responsibility for the hair, a crowning glory that should not go unappreciated given the setting and the action of this production. The changes that take place on the heads as well as inside the heads of the character reflect the movements of their lives, another subtlety in a comedy-drama that could have contented itself with stereotypes, but doesn’t.
In this fine staging of Steel Magnolias, six characters are sensitively rendered from head to toe (there is only one mention of shoes). This Peterborough Players production deserves a longer run than it has in the company’s inaugural winter season.
Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Muddy River (Carcanet), a translation of verse by Russian existentialist Sergey Stratanovsky. His translation of Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 (White Pine Press) won the second Cliff Becker Prize in Translation.