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Steel Magnolias

a Comedy/Drama
CATEGORY : DRAMA
by Robert Harling

COMPANY : Act 3 Productions [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Act 3 Playhouse [WEBSITE]
ID# 4263

SHOWING : April 27, 2012 - May 06, 2012

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

Six very different Southern women come together to share secrets, fears and love in the comfort of a homegrown beauty salon. From weddings to divorces, births to deaths, these women share their lives with grace, determination and perfectly-coiffed hair.


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REVIEWS

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Return to Chinquapin Parish
by Dedalus
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
4.0
Why don’t y’all pull up a cushion, sit by me here on the couch, and I’ll tell you ‘bout yet another trip down Louisiana way, with that ever-popular piece, Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias.” If you’ve been living in a cultural bubble for the past couple of decades, this is an oft-produced, oft-enjoyed, off-Broadway play that was made into a hugely popular movie (that will be remade by Kenny Leon this year). Originally conceived as a “love letter” that playwright Harling conceived to cope with [deleted by the spoiler police], this is an enjoyable portrait of Southern womanhood that gives equal attention to your heartstrings and to your funny bones (“Laughing through tears is my favorite emotion”).

It is Shelby’s wedding day, and we’re in Truvy’s hair salon as all the characters gather more for gossip than tonsorial couture. They joke, kvetch, and shower each other with home-fried wisdom and affection. We stay in Truvy’s salon as the next scenes take us through a year or so of joys and tragedies and incidents both small and too-large-for-the-men-to-handle.

This play succeeds or fails on the shoulders of the six women whose stories we share, and Act 3 Productions has assembled a doozy of a cast. Debbi Berlon, a newcomer to Atlanta stages, is a revelation as M’Lynn, the central role over-played by Sally Field in the movie version. She is a granite-filled force of nature, a mother to die for, who runs the gamut of emotion from deepest grief to over-the-top ecstatic happiness, stopping at every rest stop along the way. She has a quiet, but forceful voice that demands attention (and obedience), and her brilliantly under-played last scene monologue had me in tears, despite my (perhaps) over-familiarity with the scene and the words. This is an actress to watch for!

As her daughter, Shelby, last year’s MAT winner Maggie Taylor shows she’s just as talented in non-musical roles (though she does get to lend her voice to a heart-breakingly appropriate song during the last scene change). Ms. Taylor is as fragile as a blossom, but has a firm determination that even her mother can’t deny. She hits every note right, and was a definite joy to watch. (And, incidentally, LOOKS as if Ms. Berlon could be her mother.)

In the other roles, Kandice Arrington brings a unique African-American sass to Truvy that works in every way (and gives a nice preview of how Kenny Leon’s upcoming all-black film version will work). Johnna Mitchell and Judy Seaman are wonderful in the “old lady” parts (Ouiser and Clairee), equal parts vinegar and molasses. And Ansley Gwinn rounds out the cast nicely as Annelle.

Like I said, this play succeeds and fails on the strength of the cast, which, in this case, is a good thing, as there were so many questionable choices made in the actual design of this production. The most glaring problem is the set, a (to be honest) sorta kinda attractive piece that is just plain wrong. Supposedly a converted car port, the set designer made no effort to make it look like one, instead creating a pink and grey back wall that looks as if a Pepto Bismol bomb went off in a Pep Boys garage (for the record, pink is SHELBY's signature color, not Truvy's). Two free-hanging window frames downstage do nothing except hide the actresses at critical points, and no effort was made to disguise the fact that the space has no back-stage areas -- the actresses use an architecturally awkward door a level or two below the main playing area. (“Negative Space” and “False Walls” are two concepts the Act 3 designers should become acquainted with.)

Also questionable was the decision to update the play from the 1980’s to the 2010’s. On the surface, this is an idea that has merit, but, in execution, it just wasn’t handled consistently at al. References to “Princess Kate” (who, by the way, is a Duchess, not a Princess) seem out of place when there are references to Donny Osmond remaining. Considering that the play covers more than a year, using current references in the first scene also leaves you in a bind as to what can you refer to in the “future” scenes.

But, let me repeat a third time, this play succeeds and fails on the strength of the cast, and Act 3 has given us a group of women I found downright pleasant to visit, who quickly distracted me from the distractions of the wrong-headed set and inconsistent time references, and who made this play what it was designed to be – a love letter to Southern Womanhood that is equal parts laughter and tears.

And, in the final analysis, that’s all you need to know.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



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