Sunday, February 13, 2011

Faulkner: "Steel Magnolias"

The show must go on! --- Faulkner University's production of the popular comedy Steel Magnolias certainly followed this hallowed dictum on Friday night. With one cast member down with the flu after the opening performance, and her replacement called away on a family emergency less than 30-minutes before show time, veteran Faulkner actor Kari Gatlin took the stage book-in-hand, and with generous support from fellow actors and backstage crew, kept the show alive for its sold out audience.

Ms. Gatlin played Clairee, a wealthy and wise-cracking matron in a small Louisiana town who, along with several other women, meets regularly at Truvy's [Brooke Brown] beauty parlor to get their hair done, to gossip, and to find refuge from their men. The shop, on Jason Clark South's detailed naturalistic set, is a woman's domain where no self-respecting man would dare to enter, and where the women literally and figuratively let their hair down.

Playwright Robert Harling created this comic gem in 1987, and his insightful rendering of women's relationships and Southern attitudes have not lost their apeal.

Under Mr. South's able direction, Faulkner's six veteran actresses create a fine ensemble where no one character dominates; yet each one emerges as a distinct personality we all recognize from life around us.

Familiar from its many professional and amateur productions in and around Montgomery, as well as from its popular but flawed film version, Steel Magnolias lets us into the intimate lives of these women who meet regularly at Truvy's where a sign proclaiming "There is no such thing as natural beauty" signals Truvy's philosophy, though it is contradicted by the lives of the women.

Ms. Brown's vivaciously brash and compassionate Truvy hires a secretive wallflower named Annelle [a clever evolution into "membership" in the girls' club by Heather Baker] as her new born-again shop assistant on the day of a local beauty queen's wedding.

Everyone is curious about Annelle's background but get distracted by Shelby's [Sophia Priolo] wedding plans. Pretty in pink -- her signature color -- and with the soft-spoken charm of Southern gentility, Ms. Priolo shows Shelby as a woman of her own convictions that her well-intentioned mother M'Lynn [stalwart Rebekah Goldman] disapproves -- decisions ranging from hairstyles & color coordinated wedding flowers, to not taking her diabetes "medicines", to choosing a life-threatening pregnancy.

The group is complete in the entrance of Ouiser [LaVera Brown], a no-nonsense antagonistic sort who, as played with brutally comic honesty by Ms. Brown, adds pepper to the stew as a character we love to hate, and who heightens the on-stage energy of all her compatriots.

As witty and caustic repartee between Ouiser & Clairee, and mother-daughter disagreements between M'Lynn & Shelby reveal the closeness of their relationships over the play's two acts, and with Truvy moderating them and Annelle offering simple wisdom as advice, the women all gain strength from one another as they rely on the group's unity.

Though life can often be unfair, and as one character puts it "That which does not kill us makes us stronger", the women's natural beauty triumphs at the end.