Russ Hunt's Reviews

Steel Magnolias
By Robert Harling

Theatre New Brunswick
October 1995

Theatre New Brunswick is advertising its season opener, Steel Magnolias, as "gentle humour" and "tender drama." If that's been dissuading you from buying a ticket, there's good news: you can get yourself right down to the box office. In this production, the humour's much more than gentle and the drama turns out, after all, to be pretty powerful.

Reading Robert Harling's script -- and knowing its history -- might make you think the evening might be a little, shall we say, damp. After its opening on Broadway in 1987, it rapidly became one of the most often-produced plays in the world, and then a high-profile movie. It has a fairly justified reputation as a script that will pull tears from the most cynical eyes, as the main characters -- a mother and her courageous daughter -- cope with illness, marriage, childbirth, and early death. Its basic idea -- that under the beauty-parlor magnolia facade all these women need to be made of steel in order to survive -- is tailor-made for cliches.

In the hands of TNB and this cast, though, it's something a little tougher than that. Even the weaker lines crackle, and the best ones go off like the offstage gunshots that punctuate the first scene. This production foregrounds the script's cynicism about the platitudes of fundamentalism, its clear-sightedness about the role of women (in the south, of course, but everywhere else as well), and the way it pushes laughter and pain together.

Steel Magnolias is a little weak on plot. The entire action of the play doesn't amount to much more than a couple of sentences of summary. But the summary wouldn't prepare you for the strengths of this production. For one thing, the tight, sharp focus of the play itself -- the fact that all the action takes place in a small-town beauty parlor, at four crucial moments in the lives of the characters over a two and a half year period -- helps engage us with those characters and their concerns. For another, the tight ensemble playing and the usually impeccable comic timing of the six-woman cast make it seem quite irrelevant that a good deal of the time not much is really happening. Lines like Truvy's characterization of the weather in Las Vegas -- "I hear it's like living in a blow-dryer" -- keep us going even when we might be wondering why we should continue to be interested.

So, too, does the way Walter Learning and the ensemble keep the focus moving around Truvy's shop, keeping everyone occupied and focused without distracting us from the central dialogue. The six women play off each other in an elegant and often graceful dance of gossip and commonplace, revelation and surprise.

But the lynchpin of the show, for my money, is TNB's own Jenny Munday. In the demanding role of M'Lynn Eatonton, the mother of the diabetic young woman, she fulfills all the promise that those of us who have been following her career since the early days of the Comedy Asylum knew was there. Her comic timing is, if anything, sharper than ever. More important, she manages to make M'Lynn something more than the cliche -- the strong, noble, self-sacrificing mother-figure -- that the script might have allowed for.

When, at the end, she finally explodes in a passionate burst of anger at the injustice of a world which has taken her daughter away from her, we not only believe the anger but we also believe the laughter lurking right under the surface -- laughter which her friends in the beauty parlor pull out.

Sarah Evans, as her daughter Shelby, whose unwillingness to accept the limitations of her disease kills her, is perhaps not quite vivacious and charming enough as a would-be bride in the first scene, but by her final leave-taking she has convinced us that the loss of her sparkle and toughness will be a disaster, not just to her mother, but to us as well.

The other characters all, in some sense, are foils to the main action -- they're witnesses, commentators -- and thus the actors face the challenge of creating enough character to keep us intrigued and yet not enough to distract us. All succeed. It's difficult to pick the strongest.

Denise Ferguson's Ousier Boudreaux is tough, quirky and funny, and she plays the town harridan with a superb sense of timing. "I'll write a check," she says. "I'll support art. I just don't want to see it."

Wanda Cannon's Truvy acts as the hostess, resident witness and storehouse of town gossip with absolutely appropriate attention. I was particularly struck by her ability to listen to other people and contribute to the audience's sense of where the focus was.

The butt of much of the script's humor is the new assistant, Annelle, who during the play is converted to a particularly simple-minded brand of fundamentalism. Linda Prystawska's comic timing made lines explode that I'd not have expected to amount to much.

I wasn't quite as engaged by Irene Pauzer's Clairee. Her timing seemed off and occasionally I wasn't convinced by her readings of lines. All four subordinate characters present problems of focus, and hers is perhaps especially challenging; her prickly relationship with Ousier doesn't give an actress much to build on.

But finally this is not a production which depends on individual performances as much as on an ensemble working together. Picking flaws (such as the fact that Truvy's beauty shop doesn't look much like a closed-in carport, or that accents wander all over the South) seems beside the point after an evening in which tears and laughter get pushed together so closely that they seem to merge. TBN's Steel Magnolias is, among other things, further evidence that a thoughtful, committed production can pull magic out of a script that might otherwise seem a bit moist.

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