In the 25 years since it first premiered off-Broadway, Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias has become the quintessential showcase for Southern actresses, proving to be a box office boon for theater companies who've staged their own versions of the play. Set in fictional Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, Steel Magnolias tells a universal tale of enduring friendships and abiding love, the play's more dramatic moments offset by liberal doses of down-home humor that continues to resonate and win over new devotees to Harling's timeless prose.
Truth be told, in the 25 years since the show became part of the pop culture zeitgeist-how often do you repeat lines from the script to yourself or recall the antics of one of the play's iconic characters?-I've seen at least ten different productions (at least, that's how many I can remember off-hand), although it's entirely possible I've seen many more than that number.
Director Lisa Gillespie is responsible for my most recent serving of Steel Magnolias (onstage at Boiler Room Theatre in Franklin through September 8), which like all richly decadent Southern delicacies, sates something within me that yearns for a memory-laden repast-serving up Harling's artful blend of comedy and drama that is so redolent of my upbringing. In fact, every new production of Steel Magnolias that I see reminds me of a family reunion, where the same stories of kinfolk and friends are told time and again, providing a rich heritage from which to draw sustenance.
In fact, the six women created by Harling for his play are easily recognizable, not necessarily for their individual personalities or onstage actions, but because of the underlying aspects of each woman's emotional makeup that is so genuine and so representative of women in my own life-or your own life, I suspect, if you grew up anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. Even if you're a Yankee (or perhaps even if you are from anywhere else in the world where productions of Steel Magnolias have flourished-it's been mounted by theater companies all over the globe), you will see traces of women you love and you are likely to identify with the stories told within the intimate confines of Truvy's beauty shop every Saturday morning.
Growing up in a small Southern town, I watched my mother go every Saturday to Wanda's Beauty Shop in Bethel Springs, Tennessee, where she and the other women assembled to enact scenes from the play even before it was written. Seeing a new production of Steel Magnolias, therefore, takes me home in a way that fills me with sentimentality that borders on the maudlin, causing me to miss my mama (and her friends gathered there with her in memory) more than I can adequately express.
Of course, one of the best things about Steel Magnolias is that it gives a group of six actresses a showcase for their acting talents and the opportunity to honor the women who's come and gone before them. In that way, Steel Magnolias is unique and deserves its place of honor in the pantheon of classic stage comedies; and it is as much a part of Southern literature as anything written by Tennessee Williams or Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner. The theme from Hawaii Five-O just adds to its sense of style.
Gillespie has assembled a fine cast of actresses to bring Harling's characters to life on the Boiler Room Theatre stage, led by Kay Ayers in the role of M'Lynn, the devoted mother whose fierce love for her daughter Shelby (played by Lori Bargas, who looks enough like Elizabeth Taylor in her first scenes to take your breath away) provides the play's central storyline. Ayers, who frankly looks too young to have a daughter of Bargas' age, gives a strong and focused performance that is indicative of her versatility and the depths of her abilities. Ayers and Bargas fight with one another gleefully (even if some of their arguments seem a bit too heated for my sentimental sensibilities) and more often than not display a sense of mother/daughter camaraderie.
Keri Pisapia takes on the challenge of playing Truvy, arguably the best-remembered character from the play, with focus and commitment, making the most of her scenes to deliver a comic performance of note. Cassie Hamilton, fresh-faced and sweetly smiling as Annelle, plays her character with an easy grace, even if her towering bouffant hairdo tends to enter a scene before she does.