Jill Taylor Anthony, Peggy Osbourne, Susan Slotoroff, Liza Couser, Dorothy Stanley. Photo Curt Henderson.
What a difference 30 years can make. In 1987, “Steel Magnolias,” a play written by Robert Harling, debuted, followed two years later by a film of the same name. It’s now on the boards at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, and it’s something of a “girls-night-out.” with the “girls” gathering not at a cocktail lounge or a male strip club, but a beauty parlor in Chinquapin, Louisiana, an establishment, as one character notes, no male would ever dare enter.
Thus, in the confines of “Truvy’s” home-based emporium of coiffures and polished nails, women can let down their hair (both literally and figuratively) and say what’s on their minds. I would imagine that if the six characters in Harling’s play could transport themselves to eavesdrop on a modern feminine confab they would be perplexed, at times shocked, and often totally bewildered. So, what the hell is #MeToo? And yet…and yet…would they? Perhaps they just might be able to offer a certain calming perspective, for as much as Harling’s play seems rooted in a now fractured mind-set, at the same time it seems to touch on verities that can be captured in the phrase, “Girls will be girls.” That is, the ladies can be soft and lovely, like magnolias, but at the same time they are constructed of steel more well-tempered than that used to form the male of the species.
In terms of plot, “Steel Magnolias” is something of a one-trick pony: these women have a long-standing relationship – they are who they are (dare one say stereotypes?) – until Shelby (Susan Slotoroff), a young, somewhat rebellious woman with type 1 diabetes, announces that she is pregnant, much to the consternation of her mother, M’Lynn (Jeannie Hines), who fears the pregnancy will endanger her daughter’s life. Commenting on this, and other daily-life concerns, are the regulars at Truvy’s: the slightly acerbic owner, Truvy (Jill Taylor Anthony), her new assistant, a somewhat born-again Annelle (Liza Couser), Clairlee (Dorothy Stanley), the doyenne of the group and Ousier (Peggy Cosgrave), the resident curmudgeon, all under the direction of Susan Haefner.
The pleasure to be found in “Steel Magnolias” rests in the presentation of character and, once this is done efficiently and economically, watching these characters interact as they comment on their loves, their lives, their husbands (and men in general) and various hairdos. The play is well-cast – there really isn’t a false note throughout the entire evening, and kudos must go to David Alan Stern, the play’s dialect coach, for these actors do sound, throughout the entire evening, as if they are truly Southern-fried.
One might question the decision of scenic designer David Lewis to leave so much center-stage open space on this thrust stage. The beauty parlor chairs are set extreme stage left and right, or upstage, which often creates a visual vacuum into which the actors enter and exit. There’s also a rather stunting of emotions during an emotional scene between M’Lynn and Shelby: given Haefner’s blocking, the actors seem to be locked into their chairs and there’s little or no eye contact between them. What’s being said and the accompanying body language (or lack of same) just don’t seem to mesh.
Setting aside such quibbles and concerns, there’s no denying that this is a warm and embracing production. It is of an era, but so is “Hedda Gabler” and “The Doll House.” Given today’s current battle and bashing of the sexes, you may find the concerns of the ladies in “Steel Magnolias” a bit mundane, but then, if you do then you would find discussions of love, friendship, nurturing and sheltering mundane, and they are not. Like it or not, we haven’t come very far from 1987 or, for that matter, 1887. Guys gather, often in bars or saloons, to bemoan how they are misunderstood and to kvetch; girls gather, often in beauty salons or (I’m dating myself here) Tupperware parties to bemoan how they are misunderstood and to kvetch. In the long run, it’s good for the soul, and so is “Steel Magnolias.”
“Steel Magnolias” runs through September 29. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org.