By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) has returned to that old chestnut Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling, a fellow Louisianian, who grew up in the oldest settlement in the state, Natchitoches. Those of us who live here know the name is pronounced “Nack-uh-titch,” not “Natch-uh-toh-chiss” and – spoiler alert for those who have never seen the play before or who missed seeing the 1989 blockbuster movie – the story of the women who hang out at the beauty salon is really all about the life of his sister, Susan, who died of complications from diabetes a few months before he set the work down in 1987.
But even after 36 years, this is a story about more about how she lived her life, unapologetic and free, while receiving support from the other strong country women he compared in the title to enduring, majestic, yet delicate Southern trees. The character of Shelby that Harling uses to substitute for his real life sister Susan is the protaganist of the play and all the other five characters of the story revolve about her.
This critical role is played by Rachel Looney, a classically trained soprano and graduate of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and Loyola University in New Orleans, whose recent work includes that of Marian Paroo in Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane’s recent production of The Music Man and last year’s title role of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella’ at the Jefferson Performing Arts Society as well as Chan in the New Orleans Opera Association’s production of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.
Directed by Kiane K. Davis, who helmed JPAS’s productions of Sistas and Sweet Potato Queens at the Westwego Cultural Center (formerly titled Teatro Wego!), this production of Steel Magnolias has a very strong cast led by Looney. Veteran performer Janet Shea returns as iconoclast Ouiser Boudreaux (a role she has performed prior) and Reagan Lincoln as M’Lynn Eatenton, Shelby’s concerned mother.
Speaking of mothers, Lincoln’s real life mother, Marcia Cassanova, portrays Clairee Belcher, the wealthy widow of the former town mayor of Chinquapin and a natural antagonist to Ouiser. Cassanova has also played Ouiser in a previous outing of the play in Shreveport, which she calls home these days.
Another classically trained voice, mezzosoprano Rachel Abbate plays salon owner Truvy Jones. Truvy is the mother hen of the group, providing the gathering place for the other five ladies and giving an insecure and inexperienced Annelle Dupuy-Desoto, an opportunity to become an operator at her beauty parlor. Portrayed by Avery Colle, Annelle undergoes a marked transformation over the course of the play’s two acts. Colle does double duty with Steel Magnolias, serving as the costume designer on this production.
The ensemble nature of the work provides that each character supports the others throughout the four scenes. By placing these very different, but strong-willed women in a truly feminine environment, Harling allows them to be themselves, unfettered by outside forces, especially by men. The men are mentioned – like Shelby’s fiancé or her father – but none of them ever set foot into the salon.
As the director, Davis does her best to allow the script to determine the arc of each of the women. There’s no need to update or change their nature. Their intent and motivations are clearly expressed in the dialogue Harling provides. Over the course of a nearly three-year period, we get to know their very different personalities and their likes and dislikes.
Each of them has an affect on the other and together they navigate from season to season as a collective unit, listening to their stories and adding their own support for one another.
Even Shelby, through her radio, is an ever-present force at Truvy’s, even when she’s not in the scene. While some of the second act naturally revolves around Shelby’s deteriorating health, her mother M’Lynn stands by her and supports her heartbreaking decision to have a child against proscribed medical advice.
Lincoln’s scenes with Looney as mother and daughter also have the additional aspect of ringing true to life. Lincoln plays the loving mother wanting to see her child succeed and be happy, yet she is pronounced in her concern that a decision to have a child might have complications for her daughter. Looney is also convincing in her portrayal of a young woman looking to find her own way in life and feel complete in her marriage without parental interference.
We also appreciate Truvy’s complete and total acceptance of rara avis Annelle with the scenes in which Abbate interacts with Colle. At first, we appreciate Annelle as tentative and shy before learning of her becoming a party girl. Ultimately, she shifts into a devout religious adherent.
There is also the antagonism between Shea and Cassanova as Ouiser and Clairee that also makes for great theatre.
Eric Porter rendered the sound designs and served as technical director. Noted wigs and makeup designs were by Kasey Lange Smith and Benjamin Dougherty handled the scenic designs with great support from lighting designer Carole “Jules” Padazzle.
Steel Magnolias finishes its run at the Westwego Cultural Center this weekend at 177 Sala Avenue in Westwego. For tickets, click here or call 504-885-2000.