By ANNE SIEGEL
MILWAUKEE, WI – It may seem unusual for the state’s largest performing arts organization to open its doors after the pandemic with a comedy from the genteel South. Yet, a closer look at this production of Steel Magnolias offers something that the audience has been missing for almost two years.
That’s the chance to get together, without masks, and share laughs, tears, hugs and even trash talk that is easily dismissed because it has become common currency for this group of neighbors and friends in a small southern town. That town, Natchitoches, Louisiana, has little to offer in terms of entertainment or any kind of social life outside the occasional church picnic.
So what do the women do? They gossip, of course. And the best gossip is saved for the small group of women who gather at Truvy’s Beauty Shop each Saturday, which is only open to friends and longtime customers. There’s Truvy (Rebecca Hirota), close friend M’Lynn (Janet Ulrich) and her daughter Shelby (Phoebe Gonzalez), and a sassy widow named Clairee (Tami Workentin). who would rather not give up her former position as the mayor’s wife. There’s constant tension between Clairee and her “nemesis,” the ever-grouchy Ouiser (pronounced “Weezer”) (Meg Thalken).
This all-women cast does playwright Robert Harling proud. In ways both outrageous and subtle, they reveal themselves to be true “steel magnolias:” resilient, fierce, tender and vulnerable. They take both the good and bad in life by bonding together, confident that, as a team, they can overcome almost any adversity. This bond is put to the test in Act II, when one of them suffers an unimaginable loss.
Robert Harling wrote this play in 1987 as a tribute to his sister, a diabetic woman who died young. The play also became a star-studded hit film in 1989. The sister’s character, Shelby, has been advised by doctors not to pursue the thing she wants most: her own baby.
Before this dilemma is revealed, the audience is treated to a litany of hilarious one-liners. The majority of them are delivered by Ouiser, including, “I’m not crazy, M’Lynn, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years.” Later on, she declares that “the only reason people are nice to me is that I’ve got more money than God.”
Her foil is Clairee, who can’t help putting in her two cents’ worth – mostly designed to deflate Ouiser. But even Truvy comes up with some doozies, such as, “Time marches on and sooner or later you realize it is marchin’ across your face.”
A Sentimental Look at Small-town Life
There is definitely a sweetness about this play, which was written in a time before Botox, cell phones and social media. Back then, the beauty shop was a natural place for women to communicate with each other – without fear of male interference. Indeed, an invisible cast of unseen men are a prime topic of conversation at Trudy’s.
Director Laura Braza, who also serves as the theater company’s artistic producer, guides her cast with a firm but gentle hand. She allows the audience to see the characters as more than mere stereotypes, which broadens their appeal. All of the women have distinctly different characteristics that contribute to their individual strengths.
All of the actors here know how to deliver a laugh, but they do it with a casual naturalness. This is particularly true of Meg Thalken as Ouiser and Milwaukee veteran Tami Workentin as Clairee. Only a couple of lines land as clunkers, but this is no reflection on the cast. Some of these cornball one-liners could have been trimmed from the script.
Another character, unmentioned until now, provides some of the most surprises in this production. Maeve Moynihan plays Annelle, a young woman who is down on her luck. As the play opens, she is “auditioning” for a hair stylist position at Truvy’s. Of course, Annelle is more than a little nervous as she fluffs and sprays Truvy’s curled hair. Moynihan, whose character would make a tiny mouse look brave, gradually accepts the praise and attention heaped on her by Truvy and her customers. Truvy already has big plans for Annelle, and as the months unfold, Annelle starts to open up about the hardships that she has faced. She flourishes in the warmth of this new environment, and her future seems secure in the hands of these capable women.
The production also benefits from its attention to detail. The characters who are stylists actually work on their customer’s hair as one would see in any real-life salon. Also supporting the cast are technical elements such as Collette Pollard’s set design, which combines both intricate detail and the bold dramatic statement of a gigantic flowering magnolia branch that hovers over the action. The set is beautifully lit by Noele Stollmack. Sound designer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca adds realistic bursts of gunfire in the first act (not to worry: the noise is supposed to shoo away birds from a tree in M’Lynn’s yard).
Finally, costumes by Samantha C. Jones are appropriate for each character, including tailored Paris couture (for Clairee) or down-home sweaters and jeans (Truvy’s style while working in her salon). The women may come from all walks of life, but the moment they walk through the door at Truvy’s, they somehow become just one of the bunch.
Steel Magnolias plays through December 5 in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. For tickets, call 414-224-1761 or visit the Milwaukee Repertory website.