By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
When Robert Harling first created the six Chinquapin, Louisiana leading ladies who hang at Truvy’s salon, America was still living through the Reagan years. Steel Magnolias was Harling’s reference to the nature of the ladies, who, season after season, stand firm and tall like trees, dealing with the vicissitudes of life as well as reveling in the felicities of living in a small-town.
The story emerged from the tragic death of Harling’s sister, Susan Harling Robinson, due to complications from diabetes. But this is far from a tale of woe. We laugh throughout most of the first act where we begin to peel back the layers of the salon owner Truvy (Lisa Picone Love), the resolute M’Lynn (Kelly Fouchi) and her doomed daughter Shelby, whose obsession with the color pink, her determination to be a loving mother and her fascination with one particular TV theme song all figure prominently.
We also are introduced to a succession of other characters. First, we meet Annelle (Madeline Taliancich), a tentative young woman who is uncertain of her marital status due to her wayward, philandering husband, but who knows she wants to become a beautician at Truvy’s. Clairee (Andee Reed), Chinquapin’s quirky former first lady with more money than sense, and oddball Ouiser (Becki Davis), who constantly battle with one another, round out Harling’s cast of characters.
The unseen others of the town we learn about through the gossip of the salon. Tenderly directed by Ricky Graham, the cast responds to the material with good timing and all turn in good performances. In the final analysis, though, the cute jokes that worked so well three decades ago now seem a bit tired and stretching.
With a beautiful set designed by Derek Blanco, the cast settles into the chairs of Truvy’s salon as they have their hair cut, shampooed, set and dried. The dramatic setting allows for the women to relax and talk about the things that matter most in their lives – their men, their children, their hair and their nails.
While Ouiser is something of the town’s nutcase, her ongoing feud with Clairee bespeaks of something more deep-seated and, indeed, we learn of a deeper emotional connection in the second act. A newcomer to the New Orleans stage and making her Rivertown stage debut is Taliancich, who surprisingly is a senior at Destrehan High School, but more than hold’s her own against more seasoned performers of the cast. Aspects of Annelle’s character are comic fodder, but Taliancich imbues the role with humanity and truthfulness.
Christian Tarzetti continues to display remarkable stage sense in her performances, which are measured and thoughtful. Possessive of an amazing voice, which she used to enchant Rivertown and Jefferson Performing Arts Society audiences in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Tarzan, Tarzetti proves she is ever as talented a dramatic actress as a singer.
Her work with Fouchi, Rivertown’s co-artistic director and producer, holds the greatest emotional arc of the play. The character of M’Lynn is torn between wanting her daughter to be happy and the concern she has that a pregnancy might bring about unwanted health consequences. There is a formidable force behind Tarzetti’s character of Shelby that showcases her determination and her overwhelming sense of optimism, perhaps acknowledged in her fascination with all things pink.
Davis, seen in last year’s Billy Elliot at Rivertown, continues to impress audiences while taking time away from the stage to appear in front of the camera for several roles on film. Love’s performance as Truvy was uneven in the first act, although she rose to the challenge of the difficult scenes in act two that deal with her support of Shelby and M’Lynn.
While not performing on stage herself, Shelbie Mac continues to impress with her work as a scenic artist. Marc Fouchi’s sound design is also excellent as is Robert Camp’s lighting design. Costumes by Chris Arthur are also quite good.
Graham’s direction in the work is solid, but the familiar and predictable aspects of Harling’s script in this politically-prickly era of Donald Trump suggest this may be a time to keep the wraps on Steel Magnolias for some time to come.
Steel Magnolias continues at the Rivertown Theaters for Performing Arts, 325 Minor Street, in Kenner with performances at 8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and matinees on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. For tickets call 504-461-9475 or click here.