For more than two decades now, with countless productions staged around the globe and a high-grossing, star-studded movie adaptation, Robert Harling's florid Steel Magnolias has been the victim of its own success. But in March 1987 I had the good fortune to stumble upon the original off-off-Broadway production at New York's tiny WPA Theatre. To see Steel Magnolias cold, without having read any reviews and knowing nothing of the plot, was a wrenching experience. We in the audience were eavesdropping flies on the walls of Truvy's Beauty Shop in rural Louisiana. As six women let down their hair and their guard, class lines dissolved; rich and poor, young and old, became equal. In that original staging, the women were oblivious to the fact that they had been commissioned to be funny or dramatic; they had no intention of taking part in a comedy or being involved in a tragedy if they could help it. Which, alas, they could not.
I dearly hoped the play would have a continued life, and it did. Yet as Steel Magnolias moved on to off-Broadway for a three-year run and then was produced around the nation, every new staging, more flashy than the one before, seemed to be ever more removed from what had been so indelible about the original production. And the slicker it got, the more unforgiving were the script's flaws. Robert Harling was a first-time playwright. The evening is cluttered with digressions about offstage characters we never meet, and Harling's insecurity as a dramatist led him to rely on his knack for being able to set up an easy joke even when it has no purpose other than to elicit an easy laugh.
Now Steel Magnolias is back at home in a small playing space. The current Dramatic License Productions version is being mounted in a new venue at the Chesterfield Mall. Though there are technical kinks to be ironed out (all new spaces have kinks), the production, directed by Annamaria Pileggi, tends to get the big things right. The biggest is that by evening's end the viewer is swept along on a surge of raw emotion. Harling wrote Steel Magnolias as therapy to deal with a family crisis. Because he was writing with his heart on his sleeve, the story's sentiment and pathos are either assets or flaws, depending on the skill of each individual production. Here the emotion feels organic. Viewers should not be embarrassed by being caught up in it.
Among the cast, I especially appreciated Laurie McConnell. As Truvy Jones, the owner of the beauty shop where the action plays out over two-plus years, McConnell is the cattle prod that keeps the pace moving. Donna Weinsting is in fine form as the wealthy widow of the town's former mayor, and Colleen Backer is once again a wonder as Annelle, the apprentice beautician. Annelle is the only one of the six characters who undergoes growth; it's a delight to watch Backer rise from the ashes of her own inferiority.
Perhaps it could be argued that there's growth in Shelby, the ingénue who begins the play as a bride debating whether to model her hair after Jaclyn Smith or Princess Grace and by the middle of Act Two is confronting life-and-death decisions. But what I most admired about Stephanie Brown's Shelby is the childlike naiveté that infuses her performance throughout. As Shelby's mother, Kim Furlow is most effective in the scenes in which she is hopelessly trying to instill a sense of maturity in her guileless daughter. Sally Eaton seems too slight for the bulldog neighbor Ouiser, butt of much of the humor. Yet by evening's end Eaton is an integral part of the ensemble.
Those who prefer to pick at the production can find things to pick at; those who want to pick at the play can do that too. Harling is not Tennessee Williams; he's not even Beth Henley, whose black comedy Crimes of the Heart dissects not dissimilar characters in Mississippi. But, especially when played simply, Steel Magnolias is shameless in its love of life and in its affirmation of the continuity of friendship. Bring Kleenex.