REVIEW: Macon Little Theatre offers fine ensemble effort in 'Steel Magnolias'

By R. Andrew Strickland
(Originally published in the Macon Telegraph, November 1, 2005.)

In this part of the world, the magnolia tree is legendary.  The large, showy blossoms are a symbol of the beauty of the South.  In fact, a Southern home is incomplete without a real magnolia tree out front or at least a picture of one somewhere inside.  Often lost behind the beauty of these enormous blooms is the strong tree that supports them.  The tender flowers could never survive without the sturdy branches that hide beneath them. 

In Robert Harling’s play Steel Magnolias this dichotomy is most apparent.  Here the magnolias are six Southern women who are linked together through the time they spend in a beauty salon.  Although hair dressing and manicures are at the forefront of the action, the inner strength the women possess to support their families through good times and bad is the heart of the story.  The women of the South, Harling suggests, are its beauty and its strength.

Both of these attributes are on fine display in Macon Little Theatre’s new production of Steel Magnolias.

Bringing the staff and customers of this Louisiana beauty salon to life requires strong ensemble acting from six actresses. Suzanne Webb portrays Truvy, the owner/operator of the salon, with endless energy and a nice sense of world-weary optimism.  Truvy drives much of the action in the first act of the play, and Webb is up to the job.

Betsey Bloodworth, as Truvy’s young assistant Annelle, is not quite as successful.  In many ways Annelle is the most difficult character to portray in Steel Magnolias because of the vast changes in her personality over the course of the play.  Running the gamut from nervous and mousy to flamboyant and pious, Annelle is a challenge for any actress.  Bloodworth makes strong choices for each of these incarnations, but comes across as a bit of a caricature in the early scenes.  Still, her work is very enjoyable and adds much to the strong ensemble of the show.

The plot of Steel Magnolias is largely driven by two characters: M’Lynn and her twenty-something daughter Shelby.  Patsy Seymour plays M’Lynn through happiness and grief with an understated sense of grace and strength.  Seymour finds her own voice for M’Lynn and does not fall into the trap of trying to imitate Sally Field’s performance from the popular film.  This choice serves her – and the production – well indeed.  Also aiding the production is Lauren Ray’s performance as the fashion-conscious, diabetic Shelby.  While Ray’s performance could be more richly nuanced in places, she brings a sparking charm to Shelby that is vital to the success of the production.  Ray and Seymour’s work is strongest when they play off of each other – particularly in their time alone on stage together in Act I, Scene 2.  

If M’Lynn and Shelby drive the plot, the remaining characters of Clairee and Ouiser drive the comedy of Steel Magnolias.  Gale Bryant is wonderful as Clairee, the widow of the town’s former mayor.  Bryant handles the constant comic interjections of Clairee with great timing while her natural delivery is refreshingly honest.  Nelda Tawse finds a nice acerbic quality for the grumpy Ouiser. While Tawse can be a bit hard to understand at times, her Ouiser is wickedly funny.

The performances of these six actresses were led by first-time director Kim Cooper.  Cooper deserves applause for finding an original voice for her production and not allowing it to become an imitation of the film.  The show is adequately staged, helped in this by a glorious set design by Zach Broome.  Truvy’s shop is recreated in amazing detail with lighted vanities, hairdressing paraphernalia of all shapes and sizes, and enough interesting nooks and crannies to provide eye candy for the entire evening.  Costumes by Wanda Hulett, Cooper, and the cast are quirky and fun, and J.P. Haynie’s lighting provides many nice touches.

The only detractors from this production, aside from a few well-covered line gaffes, are the scenes requiring physical comedy.  While the cast handles the verbal repartee very well, the few slapstick moments seem uncomfortable and forced.  Still, these moments are few in Steel Magnolias and the cast overcomes these small obstacles with a wonderful ensemble performance powered by a great deal of heart.  Macon Little Theatre has truly found the strength that lies beneath the beauty of these six magnolias.

R. Andrew Strickland
Since 1/10/02
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