I owe the Next Door Center for the arts a review --- not just because they give me comps and treat me as a friend not a critic, but in payment for giving me a brand new production of a show I had thought un-playable.
I first saw "Steel Magnolias" when the first tour came up to Ye Wilbur Theatre; the cast had played it so long in New York they knew every guaranteed laugh, and the performance was about as bad as a bored crew of actors could make it. I hear the director came up a few nights later "to remove the improvements" --- but the damage, for me, had been done. One or two productions since (including a pretty good one at Stoneham) convinced me it was little more than a t-v sit-com without a home. But Nancy Curran Willis asked me out Winchester to see it, and it looked like a brand new show.
Her secret, I think, was in molding the six actresses into a genuine ensemble that knew and trusted one another as much as do these small-town ladies in robert Harling's play. Each one of them has made an unfortunate choice of husband --- though the choices might not have been so promising in Chinquapin County, Louisiana --- so they stop in at Truvy's Beauty Salon to let down their hair, to be themselves, and to be ruthlessly and good-humoredly honest, and every one of them leaves the place looking, and feeling much better than when they walked in.
Truvy herself (Jackie Coco) admits to a grumpy lump of a husband and three unexceptional kids; Clairee's (Beth Gotha) is heard off-stage shooting birds out of the trees to save an outdoor wedding; her wilfully independent daughter Shelby (Melissa Marie Walker) marries a man who looks funny dancing and "helps with the kids whenever he thinks about it, which isn't often"; M'Lynn (Amelia Broome) had a husband worked himself to death and left her enough money to buy the local radio station; and Ouiser (Margaret McCarty) divorced two mistakes, but even facing twilight reluctantly reacquaints herself with a high-school sweetheart. [ I hope I got those character-names right!] And in a town where everybody knows everything about everyone, the salon is the perfect place to gossip.
The one newcomer to town --- the character I had found emptily played in the past --- is close-mouthed Annelle, who blurts the fact that the husband who brought her here ran off with money, car, and wardrobe and is in jail and divorced by Act Two. Sarajane Mullins made her nervous silences and later Born-Again comments into a lack of experience and not a lack of inteligence.
Next Door's producing artistic director Brian Milauskas is really a set designer, and his wide, shallow stage brings action down center so it feels cozily intimate. Shelby and her mother sit sniping at one another side by side in hair-salon chairs as they define the main action of play. And each of the women primp in a wall of mirror --- which is actually the audience itself --- while their appearance is literally improved by Truvy or Annelle as they converse.
The claustraphobic intimacy of small-town life that drives these women together blossoms on that stage. Each woman takes a turn or two center-stage, fiasco and tragedy take their turns, and what I used to think of as silly caricatures suddenly become interesting people.
And isn't that what theater is all about?!