In "Steel Magnolias," Truvy's hair salon in fictional Chinquapin, La., doubles as a refuge, a place where six very different women safely gather to commiserate and tease.
In "Steel Magnolias," Truvy's hair salon in fictional Chinquapin, La., doubles as a refuge. Outdoors you hear sounds of gunfire and barking dogs. But Truvy's salon, a world of comfortable chairs and wall posters of glamorously coiffed beauties, is a place where six very different women safely gather to commiserate and tease.
Bella Main plays Shelby, the ill-fated heroine. She wants to have a child, but Shelby is diabetic and doctors warn her not to have children. I have seen the Shelby role performed in different ways. Here, Shelby is buoyant, aware of her medical danger but undeterred by the fearfulness of others.
She finds her determination to be joyously liberating, and Main has the good looks and jaunty stage movement to convey it. "Steel Magnolias" does not focus on Shelby's suffering. It is more about the effect she has on the salon women, coaxing them through her example to become fully individual and bringing them closer together.
Robert Harling wrote a short story in 1985 to deal with his sister's tragedy. But when he developed "Steel Magnolias" into a play in 1987, he was surprised to discover everyone was more impressed with the vivaciousness of the salon women.
The 1989 hit movie version of "Steel Magnolias" featured a bevy of superstars, including Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, and Julia Roberts. With this cast, watching the movie felt as if you were living in Hollywood. At Stagecrafters, director Suki's actresses are everyday people who carry out their roles with comparable panache, and you truly feel you are in the Deep South.
Each "Magnolia" has her story. Laura Kate Marshall brings a sparkling presence to Truvy, hostess to the other women. Bustling about her salon, she is the one fixed point in this spinning world. Truvy sports one victory. After 15 years, one night her "sofa slug" husband tells her, "Hey, let's go out to dinner."
The other "Magnolias" experience more dramatic changes. Aging Ouiser, (Krishna Dunston) is the group's curmudgeon. "I'm not crazy. I've just been in a bad mood for 40 years." She married two "deadbeat" husbands and never sees her children. Then "Owen," an old flame from her youth, re-enters her life.
Clairee, (Angela Cooper) is the well-off widow of the former mayor of Chinquapin. Content to socialize in the salon with off-handed sardonic remarks, Clairee suddenly sojourns to Paris. Cordelia Dunston plays Annelle, a mysterious teenager who shows up to apply for work. Jen Allegra plays M'Lynn, the aggrieved mother of Shelby.
Patricia Masarachia's richly appointed set design makes you feel Truvy's salon is an inviting hangout. Costumes by Claire Adams and Janet Gilmore accent both the women's individuality and the changes they go through over two years.
An undertone of gossip dominates salon life. When young Annelle shows up, Truvy knows "she has a story" and the ladies are determined to get it out of her. M'Lynn works as a counselor in a guidance center and insists on upholding professional confidentiality. Yet at times, M'Lynn cannot resist slipping in a bit of what she knows.
The use of gossipy humor is one way that playwright Harling captures the ambiance of the Deep South. He also peppers his dialogue with the South's penchant for enlivening casual conversation with colorful similes. When harried with too many hair styling requests, Truvy tells us she is "as busy as a one-armed paper hanger."
Religion, too, contributes to the play's Southern flair. Annelle surmounts personal troubles by embracing evangelical Christianity. This puts her at odds with both Clairee and Ouiser, who tease her with barbed remarks. But good-willed Annelle holds her ground and comes to exert an influence.
Harling's script has syrupy moments. All night, "Steel Magnolias" teeters on the edge of "slice of life" theater. The life changes the women experience are introduced as a fait accompli, and the play's core thesis feels editorial. Pranks, playful language and vivacious acting help keep you involved.
Still, "Steel Magnolias" remains popular because of its insistent optimism in arguing that group belonging gives the individual the power to self-overcome. Over years, these women learn to rely on each other. And when guidance counselor M'Lynn is in her deepest despair, she instinctively knows where she needs to go for a cure.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. "Steel Magnolias" will run through April 30. Tickets available at 215-247-8881 or stagecrafters.org.