As playwright Robert Harling was penning Steel Magnolias in the 1980s, he probably had no idea it would be such a huge part of pop culture three decades later — or that it would be produced so often across the country. Actress Judith Ivey, who made her directing debut at the Alliance Theatre with Carapace in 2011, has returned to the company for her version of the southern comedy-drama. It’s a decent enough staging that is marred, however, by with some uneven acting.
Now playing at the Alliance Theatre through November 9, Steel Magnolias is based on Harling’s own experience with his late sister. The stage version takes place in the beauty parlor of Truvy (Deirdre Lovejoy) in the Louisiana parish of Chinquapin over a three-year period. Young Shelby (Zoë Winters) is getting married and she and her mother M’Lynn (Beth Broderick) are getting made up for the big day. Also at Truvy’s this day are cranky Ouiser (Mary Pat Gleason) and widowed Clairee (Becky Ann Baker). They are all old friends, eager to get the dirt on Truvy’s flaky new assistant Annelle (Sara Stiles).
Once she is married, Shelby — a diabetic – eventually decides to have children, against her mother’s objections.
First produced in 1987, Steel Magnolias proves to be both funny at times and a bit dated with its one-liners (“If you’re old enough to achieve puberty you’re old enough to have a past” cracks one of the women). The play was turned into a 1989 film which brought Julia Roberts to the forefront and was later remade by Kenny Leon in 2012 with a cast including Queen Latifah and Alfre Woodard. It’s clearly rich material for its actresses and many jump at the opportunity.
Working on a typically lavish Alliance set by Michael Yeargan that feels like an authentic beauty parlor — hairspray everywhere, pictures of perfect coifs on the wall — Ivey does a solid job of directing and moving the show forward, as well as bringing out the humor. It doesn’t appear to be much of a stretch for her, but she does have some lovely actresses to work with. Lovejoy, part of the terrific ensemble from the iconic HBO series The Wire, makes Truvy a warm center. She’s not the most animated or wisecracking character of the bunch, but she is believable and nurturing. Gleason and Baker are also fun as the often-bickering Ouiser and Clairee. Both actresses have quick comic sensibilities and a rapport with each other, even if Ouiser can sound like a one-liner factory at times.
Yet the MVP here may be Winters, who is utterly radiant as Shelby. Her optimism in the face of what she’s dealing with is very refreshing and never feels forced or cloying, even when she is delivering lines well past their expiration date.
Not so well cast, though, is Stiles, who does appear to have comic chops but overdoes her Annelle. Stiles calms down a bit in the second act but she still never seems real.
The real disappointment is Broderick. In the role of M’Lynn, the actress is a last-minute replacement for Annie Potts, who had to drop out of the show following knee surgery. Hers is a bold take on the character — very reserved and internal. It culminates in a nice near-breakdown scene near the end, but Broderick’s performance is ultimately a weak link. M’Lynn may be the straight man of the piece, but she nonetheless has strength and spunk. That is what is lacking in Broderick’s performance. It’s ultimately icy — and she never connects with the rest of the ensemble.
What’s more troubling than any individual performance, however, is the fact that the production uses all out of town actresses when many local performers could have ably filled the shoes here. (Three local actresses are understudies, including Shelly McCook, who is the understudy for M’Lynn; I would have loved to have seen her earthy take on the character.)
In the end, Steel Magnolias isn’t altogether without merit. For those who love the show, it’s probably worth checking out. Yet with some unconvincing performances, it’s not going to convert anyone who’s not already aboard as a die-hard fan.