Author Robert Harling lost his sister Susan in 1985 due to complications from her diabetes. To cope with her death, and to bring his young nephew closer to the mother he would never know, Harling recorded his memories in dialogue form. The result became a highly acclaimed off-Broadway play and shortly afterwards, an award-winning motion picture: Steel Magnolias.
In The Phoenix Theatre Company’s production of STEEL MAGNOLIAS, there’s a certain irony in the representation of men. Though it is an all-female cast, the omnipresent Drum (upper case “D”, short for Drummond) is never seen, but is heard in the constant thundering of his handgun, as he fires blanks into the fruit trees to scare away roosting birds before his daughter’s wedding. That may be the sum total of male influence on this decidedly female story.
Truvy’s Beauty Salon is a home-based business in a converted garage in a fictitious town somewhere in Louisiana — hence the easy metaphor of magnolias: the Southern Magnolia, whose leathery leaves make it resistant to the most persistent pests, while its delicate, creamy white blossoms are reminiscent of the flowing layers of a bridal gown.
STEEL MAGNOLIAS is all about the spirit embodied in women. It is the optimism, determination and good-natured defiance of Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie whose debilitating disease takes a back seat to her wedding planning. It is the maternal self-sacrifice and resilience of Shelby’s mother, M’Lynn Eatenton, who is both the protective parent and the loyal best friend to Shelby.
The ornery bluntness and sarcasm of Ouiser Boudreaux sets her up to be the butt of endless jokes targeting her abrasive personality. The practical level-headedness of widowed mayor’s wife Clairee Belcher is the rational voice among the cacophony of complaint. The self-reliance, patience, and grounded philosophical outlook of salon owner Truvy Jones demonstrates woman’s adaptability to constant changes in life. And finally, the unpretentious, newfound faith of young and naive Annelle Dupuy-Desoto, a new arrival at Truvy’s salon, lets her overcome her considerable emotional baggage.
The denizens of Truvy’s find ample opportunity to poke fun at everything under the sun, including themselves and, of course, men. Oh, there is a special place in these ladies’ hearts for men, though not necessarily a place of honor. Unreliable, untrustworthy, impractical, and just plain boring, the male of the species has his place, though when things get rough, the men are apt to turn tail and disappear until things settle down.
The comedic element of STEEL MAGNOLIAS runs deeply through the entirety of the play. I don’t remember two minutes going by without someone — generally everyone — in the audience laughing. Amazingly, the dramatic elements hit home at just the right places, tugging at the heart strings just when you start to forget that this is a serious story based on real people. Steel Magnolias reminds us that life can often be a series of unbearable moments couched in humorous distractions.
The ensemble cast of talented women include Emily Mohney, who plays Shelby with a twinkle in her eye and an uplifting attitude that will incline you to believe that everything will work out in the end. Elyse Wolf’s portrayal of Shelby’s put-upon mother, M’Lynn, is a flawless rendition of the emotional rollercoaster that is the burden every mother faces in their often futile attempts to protect those they love.
Jodie L. Weiss is Truvy, the anchor of the ensemble. Weiss’s Truvy reminds us why we seek the refuge of these gathering places and why people like Truvy Jones seem to hold together the fabric of our lives just by being there for us. Maria Amorocho, as Clairee, comes off as both savvy and laid back, letting the tide take her where it will with humor and confidence. Patti Suarez is the perfect Ouiser (played by Shirley McLaine in the movie). Suarez plays the part like she doesn’t care what people think of her. And we love her for that.
Lastly, there’s Michelle Chin, who is my personal favorite because I had the opportunity to work with her almost 20 years ago. At the time she might have been ten or eleven years old. While producing a PSA (public service announcement), I was blown away by this little girl’s reading of a script which she apparently wrote herself(!). I predicted that Michelle would be a future acting talent. Her portrayal of newly-hired hairdresser Annelle, fresh off of a dubious marriage to a deadbeat, gives us the highest comedic points of the production.
STEEL MAGNOLIAS is three parts fun romp and one part tear-jerker. We can only hope for the best outcome, knowing that this is not how life works. Still, the strong bonds of love and friendship among these women remind us that the strength and humor we draw from each other will carry us through yet another day.