Set in a beauty salon in a small Louisiana town in the 1980’s, “Steel Magnolias” by Robert Harling, revolves around its owner Truvy, her new assistant, Annelle, and four other women, who come regularly to the salon to get their hair done, but more significantly, to talk. One is a wealthy widow, Clairee, who has recently lost her husband. There are the mother and daughter, M’Lynn and Shelby, who are always bickering with each other. There is the cranky curmudgeon, Ousier, always complaining about something. The newcomer, Clairee has a mysterious past. The show was so successful off-Broadway and moved to Broadway where it played for almost three years. In 1989, it was adapted for film with Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, and Daryl Hannah.
The play is a comedy-drama and is filled with lots of one-liners (usually about men) and drama (which gets under way in the second scene). While the six women were outstanding in the portrayal of these characters and they become more complex as the play went on, I did feel at times that some of the comedy was dated, almost too cute, and resembled more of a tv sitcom than interesting theater. And yet, I was engrossed in each of the stories as the characters got richer and richer.
Next door to the salon is Shelby’s father (a man we never meet), who is constantly firing his gun in the air, setting off the barking of Ousier’s dog. She complains about that and everything else, from her two former husbands, to the tourists who park on her lawn during a festival. Yet we come to love her anyway. She is so nonchalant about it and she is a riot, brilliantly played by Penelope Reed.
Shelby, who is getting married, has diabetes, and was told she shouldn’t have children, but she does. That creates more serious problems for her.
Annelle has embraced Christianity to cope with her life that we learn about from incessant questions from the others in the salon. While she is serious, there is humor in the way the others deal with her.
The salon is like the old neighborhood bar that men frequented. While it would be easy to dismiss the talk of the women as merely gossip, they are having some serious discussions about life and the way to live it… or at least cope with it.
In less capable hands, this play could turn into a predictably caricaturist representation of these women. But Director Megan Bellwoar has assembled such a strong ensemble and has guided them to powerful performances. They are truly magnolias made of steel.
“Steel Magnolias” at Act II Playhouse, 56, E. Butler Ave., Ambler, PA 19002, 215-654-0200, www.act2.org. Thru February 26, 2023.