‘Magnolias’ captures the warmth and the humor of small-town life

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 2/9/23

Even before the play opens, the Act II Playhouse production of "Steel Magnolias" under director Megan Bellwoar grabs your attention.

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‘Magnolias’ captures the warmth and the humor of small-town life


Even before the play opens, the Act II Playhouse production of "Steel Magnolias" under director Megan Bellwoar grabs your attention. As you look at the empty stage, you are struck by the welcoming aura of Truvy's hair salon in fictional Chinquapin, Louisiana. Thanks to scenic designer Meghan Jones, you sense that the salon is a refuge with its restful pastel coloring and many chairs. 

The play opens to the sound of gunfire and the barking of dogs, and you feel lucky to be cocooned in this salon. Unlike the goofball men outdoors, six women gather to celebrate Shelby's impending wedding in their own way. Then Shelby dampens their gaiety when she tells the ladies that she and husband Jackson plan to adopt. You later learn Shelby is a Type 1 diabetic and that child bearing would threaten her life. 

"Steel Magnolias" is the story of Shelby's suffering, and how the women band together in her support. There is no plot apart from their relationship to Shelby and each other. All night the drama flirts with the inaction of slice-of-life drama. But catty dust-ups, vivacious acting and witty banter keep you engaged.

Jenna Kuerzi, a former Barrymore nominee, shines in the difficult role of Shelby. There is a strained ebullience in Kuerzi's face, as though she is trying hard to spare her friends from her suffering. Through Shelby's bearing, a concern for the other subtly infuses the salon. Keurzi also profits from the wig-making skills of Bridget Brennan. Two dramatically different hair-dos suggest Shelby desperately wants to live a different life but will not openly say so. 

Sabrina Profitt tries to breathe life into M'Lynn, the mother of Shelby. Playwright Robert Harling must have been reading those "stages of grief" books, because his M'Lynn marches dutifully forward: anger-denial-rage-reconciliation. M'Lynn is also a counselor in a community center. It is funny to see the gossipy women try to get her to violate professional obligations. And it is nicely ironic that this counselor winds up on the receiving end of their odd therapy. 

Southern humor dominates the evening. At the end of scenes, aging curmudgeon Ouiser enters to light up the stage. Played by Penelope Reed, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Barrymore in 2017, Ouiser will not let anyone get the best of her. "Don't try to get on my good side", she says, "I don't have one." Ouiser has the effect of goading the others to keep pace with her. 

Annelle, played by Kelsey Hebert, is a needy newcomer to the town, a late adolescent in flight from an unhappy marriage. The women know Annelle "has a story," and they get it out of her. We watch Annelle change over two years, accented by Janus Stefanowicz's costume designs. Her conversion to born-again Christianity is fodder for Ouiser's barbed observations even as it helps capture small-town ambiance. 

This ambiance is not visceral in the 1989 hit movie version of "Steel Magnolias." With Hollywood superstars like Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine and Sally Field, the sense of place is not quite there.  Unlike Dolly Parton and Olympia Dukakis, Mary Carpenter (as Truvy) and Carolyn Nelson (as Clairee) help you feel you are living in a backwater, Louisiana  town. 

Playwright Harling grew up in Alabama. He based the play on the death of his sister, Susan, because he wanted his 2-year old nephew to know his mother. Like Shelby, Susan went ahead with her pregnancy against medical advice. Harling was surprised people were mostly impressed by how funny the salon women were. He then made their biting banter the focus of the play.

 The women often talk about men as a disappointment. Shelby married a man who stole her belongings and is now in jail. Ouiser married two "deadbeats." Truvy is married to a "sofa slug." Both M'Lynn's husband and Jackson were too weak to spend time with failing Shelby. These women need men, but they learn not to look to them for salvation. 

They look to themselves. There is a motto on the salon wall, "There is no such thing as natural beauty." It does double duty. Over the span of two years, the women learn to love themselves and each other. Competitive humor is their vehicle for discovery. When M'Lynn collapses into self-absorbed grieving, the women shock her out of it with a piece of audacious comedy. The ending works, because you are happily shocked by it too. 

Act II Playhouse is located at 56 E. Butler Ave. in Ambler.  "Steel Magnolias" will run through Feb 26. Tickets at 215-654-0200, or online at Act2.org.