Theater Review: “Steel Magnolias” — Female Bonding

By David Greenham

Over thirty years after it premiered,  the script remains touching and funny, with the added merit that it provides a refreshing respite from the sour discourse of 2019.

Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling. Directed by Paula Plum. Set design by Cassie Chapados, lighting design by Chris Bocchiaro, sound design by Kyle Lampe, costume design by Chelsea Kerl, and props design by Cesara Walters. Produced by Hub Theater Company of Boston at the Club Café, Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA, through August 3.

The cast of the Hub Theater Company of Boston’s production of “Steel Magnolias.”

Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias has an origin story that tells you just about everything you need to know about the play. Harling, a budding New York actor from rural Louisiana, wrote the play as a tribute to his sister six months after she passed away from complications of diabetes.

Most people discovered Steel Magnolias when they viewed its commercially successful 1989 film version, which featured a powerhouse cast of accomplished actresses, including a young newcomer, Julia Roberts. But the screenplay, also penned by Harling, differs from the play in several critical ways, most notably in that the theater script calls for an all-female ensemble – even 30 years later that’s still a rarity.

Boston’s thoughtful Hub Theater Company chose well-known actress and director Paula Plum to helm the story of the women of Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana. Steel Magnolias packs three years in its 2 hour and 30 minutes (including intermission), and there’s enough laughter, sorrow, and strength to make the production a memorable journey.

The action is set on a series of Saturday mornings in the in-home beauty parlor of Truvy Jones (Catherine Lee Christie), who has just taken on an anxious young assistant with a secretive past, Annelle Dupuy-Desoto (Lauren Elias). Weekend mornings are reserved for the ladies of the neighborhood to have their hair done: Clairee Belcher (June Kfoury) is the widow of the former mayor and the grand dame of the group; M’Lynn Eatenton (Liz Adams) is a no-nonsense social worker and mother; disagreeable though crankily delightful Ouiser Boudreaux (Maureen Adduci) is the arch-rival of M’Lynn’s ne’re do well (and unseen) husband, Drum. The story centers on M’Lynn and Drum’s sweet and independent daughter Shelby (Oye Ehikhamhen), who in the first scene is having her hair done for her wedding.

The banter floats easily from topic to topic — past, present, and future. Along the way there are hints of mother and daughter disagreement, from hair styles to raising kids. It’s clear in the first scene that this community of women  share an unshakable, if affectionately antic, bond, suggesting that the narrative will be a gentle light comedy. However, when Shelby suffers a hypoglycemic attack and falls limp while sitting in a beauty parlor chair, the drama takes a darker, more challenging, turn.

What made Steel Magnolias such a revelation when it premiered in 1987 at the WPA Theater was the connections it drew among its female characters. It was an unusual play, and took an unusual path to Broadway. Two months after it opened film rights were sold, and the play transferred to a larger Off-Broadway house where it ran for three years. During that time, the commercially successful film adaptation debuted, garnering a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for Roberts as Shelby. It also expanded the cast to include several other characters, including the men who are mentioned in the stage script. Following the success of the film, the play enjoyed a national tour and opened in London and other countries, all prior to a Broadway opening in 2005. Steel Magnolias, it seems, is that rare contemporary drama in which  the journey taken by friends is more important than the story line. Vehicles for men in this genre are plentiful — think of all the war films and “buddy” yarns we’ve become so familiar with. But plays that focus on women bonding together, and the strength it generates, are rarely produced.

The Hub Theater production has its high points. The second act in particular flows with grace and care. When the dialogue clicks, the proceedings are crisp and effective. Catherine Lee Christie’s Truvy holds the production together with her bubbly energy and undeniable warmth. She’s especially strong in conveying her relationship with Elias’ Annelle, an outsider who has few lines but ends up transforming over the course of the evening. When we first meet her, Annelle has just left her husband and is living in a rundown boarding house nearby. By the second act, she’s seemingly blossomed; she’s become involved in her church, found a new man and, by the conclusion, she’s pregnant and happy. Although Annelle’s story line reflects happenings outside of the shop (and the play), Elias manages to convey what is going on in her character (as part of the background to the main dramatic event), and that isn’t easy to pull off.

As comic relief, June Kfoury as Clairee and Maureen Adduci as Ouiser supply plenty of humorous energy. Adduci, in particular, makes use of adroit timing as she reveals bits of the heart that we all know lies beneath her gruff exterior.

As mother and daughter, M’Lynn and Shelby, Liz Adams and Oye Ehikhamhen convey a suitably deep connection. Adams’ M’Lynn is not all that warm in the beginning, though Ehikhamhen’s Shelby exudes considerable affection. But, as the conflict unfolds, and circumstances demand emotional courage, the performers establish a compelling relationship.

Truvy’s Beauty Spot feels crammed onto the small stage at Club Café, and that gives director Plum logistical challenges to overcome. On the set by Cassie Chapados the two hair dresser chairs sit prominently on stage left, with the single entrance down right. As a result, there is an area between the chairs and the door where just about every important line or bit of news ends up being delivered. However,  there is enough ‘flow ‘around the spot  — the ‘action’ of the actual hairdressing, shampooing, and sitting and waiting  — and that masks the paucity of acting areas.

Chelsea Kerl delivers costumes that are fun and expressive of the play’s characters, a look back at the not entirely flattering fashions of the mid-’80s. Less successful are Caroline Clancy’s wigs, though they fit the bill well enough. Kyle Lampe’s sound and Chris Bocchiaro’s lighting set the right domestic tone. Lampe makes the called for gunshots convincing, although I’m not sure the gun we saw and the gun we heard are connected. We hear a shotgun, but what we see brought on stage is a pistol.

It is reassuring to have an opportunity to revisit this relatively new American chestnut. Over thirty years later,  the script remains touching and funny, with the added merit that it provides a refreshing respite from the sour discourse of 2019. Steel Magnolias captures a cultural moment: there was a time, not too long ago, when people who held differing opinions listened to each other and tried to treat each other with respect, even when they disagreed. Most of all, they cared about each other. A worthy object lesson given these fraticious days.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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