nytheatre.com review by David Pumo
April 7, 2005
I’ve always thought Steel Magnolias was a good play. No, there’s nothing earth-shattering about Robert Harling’s soap opera script: six southern women meet regularly at the local beauty parlor and share their lives over three years. But there are plenty of laughs along the way, some nice moments for each character, and a tearjerker story arc about a diabetic daughter and her caregiver mom. A tremendous hit off-Broadway in 1987, and made into a popular film in 1989, Steel Magnolias today is, more than anything, a vehicle for the six women playing the six almost equally interesting roles. This production—the show’s Broadway premiere, directed by Jason Moore (Avenue Q)—is mostly strong, though a bit of a mixed bag.
The amount of experience each woman has had on the stage is certainly visible here. I will begin at the very top: Frances Sternhagen is a subtle gem in the role of Clairee, the well-to-do widow of the local Mayor. Having recently spent much time with Sternhagen in the role of Kyle MacLachlan’s uptight mother on Sex and the City, it is truly a delight to see her in a terrific comedic role. Her performance is a lesson in restraint and timing. With effortless grace, and not a bit of force or camp, she squarely nails every possible laugh. From my seat in the third row, where no amplification could be detected, her voice was one of the strongest and clearest, though she was the only cast member who neither looked nor sounded like she was projecting.
Marsha Mason’s many years on the stage are also delightfully in evidence. As Ouiser, the cranky neighbor with the nervous dog, she is funny and slightly outrageous in the first act. In Act Two, where her material is stronger and more diverse, she really shines with many great bits and awkwardly touching moments.
The third real stage veteran in the cast is Christine Ebersole in the pivotal role of M’Lynn, the mother of Shelby, the diabetic young woman. Stronger than steel, her statuesque entrance is the most striking of the evening. When Shelby has a diabetic attack, Ebersole becomes a triage nurse, unemotionally clicking into action and taking control, like she’s done this many times before. Later in the play, it is painful to witness this devoted mother slowly concede control of her daughter’s life and watch helplessly as the inevitable unfolds. Her climactic scene is chilling. She quietly recites lines that most actors would scream. When she finally does break down in this safe space, surrounded by her closest friends, it is only for the briefest moment. Rather than milk the drama of that scene, Moore keeps her reeled in, a pillar of dignity. In the end, eyes dried, hair back in place, her final exit is as striking as her first entrance.
Of the less experienced stage actresses, Delta Burke, who had her Broadway debut in Thoroughly Modern Millie, seems tailor-made for the role of Truvy, the overly primped owner of the beauty parlor that is the clubhouse of this sisterhood. Burke is fun and likable in the role of the hostess with a few ghosts in her closet. But there is something a little off in her performance. She often seems a half-beat behind, and misses some of the humor of the character. There should also be a sadness to Truvy, a sense of disappointment about her life that she masks behind the makeup, hair dye, and colorful outfits. But Burke doesn’t give us much of an idea about what’s going on in her life beneath the faeade.
The two younger women in the cast are both making their Broadway debuts. Rebecca Gayheart, probably best known from Beverly Hills 90210, plays Shelby, the diabetic daughter, with the strong will and thick-headedness that the character needs. What is missing is the depth of the pain she feels at the thought of not having a child. The pain needs to be so palpable that we believe she is willing to ignore her doctor’s orders and her mother’s pleas, and risk her life by getting pregnant.
Lily Rabe portrays Annelle, the aspiring hair stylist on the run from a failed marriage. The changes in her personality from scene to scene are so extreme they never quite made sense to me. Rabe’s performance here is nice, if a bit over the top, although I’ve never seen this character played any other way. It seems to be in the writing. Moore again makes this character almost a cartoon at the beginning, giving her much room to pull in when the character becomes quieter. Rabe certainly shows her range here, and becomes more interesting in her softer scenes where she is often an observer, providing occasional commentary that is sometimes surprisingly appropriate and wise.
The busy beauty parlor set, by Anna Louizos, is nicely used and looks lived-in, with many wall hangings and furnishings that add Southern references and flair. It’s a little generic, though, and not necessarily as “Truvy” as I would have imagined it. The transformation for the Christmas scene is wonderfully tacky and home-spun.
And then there’s the hair, by Bobby H. Grayson. From Burke’s over-sprayed, over-dyed mounds to Mason and Sternhagen’s beautifully natural-looking grays, coiffure becomes an important character element for these haunts of the beauty parlor, and Grayson has done a great job distinguishing them, giving each the importance, simplicity, or functionality that the character would, without overstating it or making it too focal. The hair here provides a few laughs, a little business, and a simple background to allow these six actresses do what they are there to do, and what you are there to see and enjoy.