Must-See 'Steel Magnolias' Filled With Pathos and Comedy at Cleveland Play House

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COURTESY CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE
  • Courtesy Cleveland Play House

Steel Magnolias is now in an extended run at the Hanna Theatre, as part of the Key Bank Broadway series. It is based on author Robert Harling’s sister’s 1985 death from diabetic complications following the birth of his name-sake nephew.

The script, which is one of the most produced in the American theater catalog,
originally was a short story. According to Harling, it was converted into a play in ten days.

The author selected the title as he felt that Southern women are often considered to be “delicate as magnolias, but [are really] as tough as steel.”

Steel Magnolias is an old-fashioned, well-written play that is filled with pathos and comedy. The playwright doesn’t obscure his purpose in why he wrote the script. It is obvious that he unashamedly wants to tell the tale of a group of women who, in the comfort and security of “their” beauty shop, spend every Saturday morning as an informal support group, being for each other what women need…a sense of security and unconditional love.

The setting is Truvy’s Beauty Shop, where the motto is, “There is no such thing as natural beauty.” The business is located in a converted car port, in the fictional small “twangy” northwest Louisiana parish of Chinquapin.

Truvy Jones, along with Annelle, her newly hired mysterious and anxious assistant, wash, comb-out, poof and hairspray the locks of the locals.

The Saturday morning crowd includes Clairee, the former first lady of the town, who is now a wealthy widow and owner of the local radio station. Also present is the ornery Ouiser, whose bark is worse than her bite, and insists, “I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a bad mood for forty years.” M’Lynn, an earth mother, is often accompanied by her diabetic daughter, Shelby, the prettiest girl in town.

The year is 1987. Over three years (four scenes), the audience eavesdrops on Shelby having a diabetic crash, a risky pregnancy, a medical emergency and complications. Annelle, grows from a timid outsider to a member of the in-group, gets married and transforms into a born-again Christian. Ouiser continues to gripe, Clairee travels and shares her new-found knowledge, while M’Lynn goes through an event that mothers should not have to experience.

Through it all, there is a growing awareness of the intertwining love and caring each of these women has for each other and the important role that the beauty shop has in their lives. As M’Lynn states to the women at the play’s conclusion, “You have no idea how wonderful you are.” Truvy responds, “Of course we do.”

Not a male shows his face on stage, though many are discussed. Husbands, some dead, some living, past and present lovers and suitors, beaus, and a fiancé are all open for investigating, skewering, appreciating and/or rejecting.

The Cleveland Play House and PlayhouseSquare, co-produced this mostly women-conceived show (director Laura Kepley, scenic designer Vicki Smith, costume designer Jen Caprio, lighting designer Jennifer Schriever and sound designer Jane Shaw). They have created an audience-pleasing production.

The concept of bringing the two-major production houses together, under the banner of a production as part of the Key Bank Broadway series, is unique. Usually PlayhouseSquare trucks in successful Broadway touring shows as part of the series. CPH tends to stage previously produced scripts, adding some locally written works, and hires nationally known, as well as local actors, to populate their shows.

To blend the two entities together was a bold, but natural move, something made possible by the creative forces of Gina Vernaci, Executive Producer of PHSq and Laura Kepley, Artistic Director of CPH. They were aided by the physical proximity of the organizations, being in the same downtown block of buildings.

It is obvious that Kepley knows and has a connection with Steel Magnolias.
She adds the right amounts of pathos and comedy to keep and hold the audience’s attention. The pacing is right on…languid, as fits the Southern setting, while focused, to bring about the levels needed for texturing the tale.

The introduction of talented musician/singers Emily Casey and Maggie Lakis to set the mood before the show starts, and then bridge the various scenes together, added much to the overall effect.

The cast is universally excellent. Each character is clearly drawn. The drawls, though present, are not so overdone that they become caricatures. There is no mocking of these women, their life styles or the way they speak. This is authentic as shrimp and grits, hush puppies and helmet-sprayed hair.

Elizabeth Meadows Rouse presides with pride and effectiveness as Truvy, proprietor and den mother. Devon Caraway gives Annelle the right levels of panic and religious fervor. Erika Rolfsrud is completely believable as M’Lynn, the caring mother who experiences high grief. Beautiful Allison Layman doesn’t play Shelby, she is Shelby. Mary Stout steals the show as the obstinate and opinionated Ouiser. Charlotte Booker transforms herself into Clairee with ease and surety.

The set, lighting, music (Nathan Motta, the “guy” in the production team) and costumes all come together to make for a flawless staging.

Steel Magnolias has an extended run from May 21 to August 21, 2016 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.


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