note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Playwright Robert Harling’s play about six small-town Southern women, which he wrote in 1986, captured audiences’ hearts with its female bonding and Southern charm. At Stoneham Theatre, that charm is untarnished, brightened by a sterling cast of Boston’s finest actresses, directed by Paula Plum.
Harling, who lived in Natchitoches, La., where the 1989 hit movie was filmed, set his play in his beloved smalltown Louisiana, highlighting women he knew growing up, especially his younger sister, Susan Harling Robinson, a diabetic, who died too soon, and upon whom character Shelby Eatenton Latcherie is based.
The story spans three years, centered in the little town’s “best” hair salon, when everyday and life-altering situations occur and are discussed, forming the crux of “Steel Magnolias”. This play shares each woman’s significant life passages with audiences – their hopes and disappointment, laughter and pathos. The six characters are based on Harling’s mother and friends, who congregate in their little haven to gossip, support and criticize each other, in civilized, yet sarcastic Southern ladies’ fashion. Plum, who is an award-winning actress originally from Lynn, selected some of her veteran thespian friends, all audience favorites, who have worked seamlessly together in other productions, and shine here.
Each character is unique. Kerry Dowling as omniscient, wise-cracking salon owner, Truvy, is terrific. She’s the glue that ties this unlikely group of lifelong friends together, providing a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen to, and a deft hair brush and blow dryer - the best in town.
Kathy St. George as Shelby’s mother, M’Lynn, runs the gamut from concerned mother, even-tempered social work administrator, harried wife and treasured friend. There are several scenes where she and Marie Polizzano as Shelby, engage in realistic mother-daughter bickering matches, their underlying love and admiration for each other becoming increasingly apparent as they face life-threatening challenges together. Against doctors’ warnings to not have children, newly-married Shelby becomes pregnant several months later, and prematurely delivers a 1-1/2-pound son, Jack, thus compromising her kidneys. When the women meet later at Truvy’s salon, they’re speechless as M’Lynn announces 18 months later that she’s donating one of her kidneys to Shelby. Bravely, she declares how lucky she is to have the chance to give her daughter life, not once, but twice. Sheriden Thomas adds humor as Ouiser Boudreaux, M’Lynn’s crusty, feisty, atheistic friend and neighbor, who “has been married twice, has three kids,and is richer than God,” she declares. She doesn’t fool her friends one bit with her tough outer shell.
And Sarah DeLima is delightful as elegant, rich, widowed Clairee Belcher, as is Lydia Bartlett-Mulligan, portraying Truvy’s 19-year-old, timid, new hairdresser assistant, Annelle Dupuy-Desoto, whose husband abandoned her, leaving her penniless, in Nachitoches. Bartlett-Mulligan is touching, yet funny, as she segues from fear and vulnerability to finding friendship, religion as a born-again Christian Baptist, and a new husband.
Jenna McFarland Lord has created another outstanding set, complete with huge pink magnolias above and below the stage, and Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes define each character’s personality with class.
Although “Steel Magnolias” focuses on women’s issues and bonding, it’s not strictly a female play. Men enjoy it, too. Besides, it’s the only time men would be caught dead - or alive - in a women’s hair salon!
BOX INFO: Two-act play by Robert Harling, directed by now through Oct. 2 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; additional senior matinees, Wednesday, Sept. 21,28, at 2 p.m.($25). Regular performance tickets are $44-$48, with senior discounts; students, $20. Check for related events and photography exhibit in the theater’s Atelier Gallery. Call 781-279-2200 or visit www.stonehamtheatre.org.