Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, April 2, 2001

Front left, Stefanie Anderson, as Truvy, works on
Shelby's (Lisa Young) hair, while frost-and- streak
master Annelle (Rebecca Phillips) works on M'Lynn's
(Amber Nicolson) 'do. In the background, from left,
Clairee (Wisa d'Orso) and Ouiser (Sharon Adair),
wait their turn.

Sweet (and sour)
song of the south

Reviewed by Scott Vogel

>> Steel Magnolias: Repeats 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays; and 4 p.m. Sundays through April 15 at Diamond Head Theatre. Tickets $10 to $40. Call 734-0274

IN the 1980s, hardly a playwright existed who didn't envy the success Robert Harling had with his first play, "Steel Magnolias." Drama teachers, after all, painted the profession as notoriously forbidding, a thankless pursuit demanding years of false-starts and revisions, usually culminating in little more than a bare-bones staging of your magnum opus in a bad part of town.

Then there was Harling's "Magnolias," which rocketed from pen to Off Broadway, to Broadway and then to Hollywood at a speed so fast it made experts' heads spin. It took just three years for the playwright to go from lonely scribe to Oscar-nominated screenwriter.

Thanks to its juicy female roles and its justly celebrated one-liners, "Steel Magnolias" remains popular today, mounted by theater companies nationwide. Diamond Head Theatre opened a new production of the play on Friday night, directed by Sean T.C. O'Malley.

The fact that "Magnolias" was Harling's first play is not insignificant. Like many initial efforts it is filled with several not-quite-believable tonal shifts. The dialogue too, while exhibiting a coruscating wit, often doesn't seem character-specific. "Steel Magnolias" is rough going, for both actors and audience, without a director and ensemble who work tirelessly to surmount the play's limitations.

The action begins innocuously enough inside Truvy's Hair Salon which, besides presenting interesting challenges for the set designer, functions as an ersatz retreat for the women of a small Louisiana town. Truvy (Stefanie Anderson), her hair blown, teased and sprayed to gravity-defying excess, is the sort of person who might have run Plato's Republic, if only the ancient sage could have been persuaded to dispense with the idea of philosopher-kings, settling instead on philosopher-beauticians.

Truvy wears the mantle of wisdom loosely, demonstrating equal command of aesthetics ("There's no such thing as natural beauty"), metaphysics ("Time marches on, and eventually you realize it's marching across your face") and evolutionary biology ("The only thing separating us from the animals is our ability to accessorize").

Into this philosopher's cave, one day, walks Annelle (wonderfully played by Rebecca Phillips), a young woman who, despite a certain ditziness and a most unfortunate pair of cat-eye glasses, is appointed to the high post of Truvy's assistant. (To her credit, she did graduate valedictorian of her beautician school.)

Annelle is many things, a woman with a suspicious past, an undisputed master of "frosting and streaking" and -- not incidentally -- an expository device for the playwright. After all, Harling has planned for a parade of old friends to enter his shop, and old friends do not usually explain their complicated relationships or give synopses of their backstories, except in the presence of a newcomer. And so we meet, in rapid succession, the recently-widowed Miss Clairee (Wisa D'Orso) whose flaming red hair appears in need of little improvement. This leaves her ample time to deliver some of the play's best one-liners, all of which D'Orso attacked with devilish enthusiasm.

Next to kneel at Truvy's altar are M'Lynn (Amber Nicolson) and Shelby (Lisa M. Young), a contentious mother-daughter duo searching for just the right combination of Aquanet and baby's breath for Shelby's wedding. In between arguments the pair offer a glimpse of the day's events, including the colors picked (two shades of pink, Blush and Bashful), the groom's relatives ("It's a real Southern family: You either shoot it, stuff it or marry it") and the reception, which will feature a groom's cake in the shape of a giant armadillo.

Fans of the film version of "Steel Magnolias" will remember the hilarious sight-gag which was that armadillo cake, its red velvet interior providing an amazingly lifelike depiction of roadkill. The play, being a play, confines its action to the beauty shop, which presents a challenge for the actresses, who must create the world outside through words alone. They must also, without aid of mood music or special effects, respond to the developing tragedy brought on by Shelby's diabetes, and this is where the production falls short.

In the first scene, Truvy is styling Shelby's hair for the wedding when, completely unexpectedly, the young woman goes into a violent convulsion, the fit brought on by an excess of insulin. It is truly a terrifying moment. It is also a moment in which the ladies can show their passionate concern for Shelby, and a moment when the audience realizes that "Steel Magnolias" isn't merely a paean to white trash camp. And yet, as played by Young, the convulsion feels like hardly more than an inconvenience, a mere speed bump between wisecracks. This directorial misstep, seemingly minor, prevents the production from reaching the script's intended depth. It also undermines the effect of some later scenes, when Shelby's life-threatening condition becomes the focus of the narrative.

Still, despite opening night jitters and pacing problems, the cast was clearly enjoying itself, never more so than when engaging in comic business. When Phillips gave D'Orso a beauty treatment that involved seemingly hundreds of yards of Saran Wrap, the resulting creation brought down the house. (The other actresses studiously avoided even a glance at D'Orso, for fear they might burst out laughing themselves.)

The arrival of Ouiser (Sharon Adair), the play's token sour puss, also meant the arrival of some deliciously sarcastic lines ("I don't go to the theater because I can nap at home for free") and a fresh round of put-downs at her expense.

Patrick M. Kelly contributed an attractive set, the highpoint of which was a giant magnolia tree that framed the proscenium, eliciting sighs of pleasure as the opening-night audience took its seats. Karen G. Wolfe's costumes were also first-rate, the designer having brought a candy-coated palette to the proceedings. Every choice, from Annelle's orange jumper to M'Lynn's purple smock to Truvy's red poinsettia earrings, was both wry and apt.

Several of the actresses, it seems, could take a tip from the costume designer, who managed to be colorful without overstatement. The performers should remember that the play's laugh lines are to be delivered in context, not in the manner a stand-up comedian might. And they should work to create a sense of connection with their supposed lifelong friends.

This camaraderie will likely only increase as the play continues its run and the actors settle further into the Southern gothic milieu. Nicolson's eyebrows -- virtual performers in themselves -- indicate fresh territories of nuance just waiting to be explored, as does her delivery of M'Lynn's final tear-stained monologue. No one -- not even the most hard-hearted theater critic -- will fail to respond to this terrific soliloquy, and parents especially are reminded to pack a kleenex or two. It's one more reason why, despite all the challenges it presents, Harling's play continues to engage the hearts and minds of audiences and actors alike.

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