Sunday, February 14, 2016

Wetumpka Depot: "Steel Magnolias"

Despite its national popularity since its 1987 New York debut, and despite the numerous local offerings over the years, Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias seems to never disappoint; and the Wetumpka Depot Players are opening their 36th Season with another solid production.

Popularized even more by the 1989 film, it is the by now familiar story of six women from fictitious Chinpaquin, Louisiana who meet at least weekly in Truvy's [Jennifer L. Haberkorn] beauty parlor to swap stories and gossip, and to bond with one another without any male interference. They have been doing this for a long time, so it is imperative for any acting company to exhibit a complete comfort with one another [even a newcomer to the group adjusts over time].

Director Carol Heier is gifted with a cast of six veterans who not only deliver dialogue with conviction, but who -- with subtle gestures and facial expressions, and some exquisite comic timing -- demonstrate a kind of shorthand communication that only happens when people know one another well.

Steel Magnolias is a testament to the resilience of Southern women -- the "steel magnolias" of the title --  who are able to survive most anything that comes their way, while their menfolk who never appear on stage too often can't handle things unless they can "shoot it, stuff it, or marry it". -- The Depot's ensemble cast, with a keen balance of humor and pathos, show that they achieve both individual and group strength by relying on one another.

The plot revolves around Shelby's [Adrian Lee Borden] marriage, ill-advised pregnancy, and untimely death from complications of type-1 diabetes, the action affords insights into mother-daughter relationships, marriage, trust, compassion, small town social concerns, and friendship.

While Ms. Haberkorn's Truvy claims with clever posturing that "there is no such thing as natural beauty", and swaggers with complete candor that "it takes a lot to look this good", her demeanor softens when she hires Annelle [Natalie Rimel], a shy young newcomer to the town and "who must have a past"; and while she often comes across as hard nosed, she has a soft heart and a giving manner. Her business, after all, is ostensibly to make everything beautiful, so when events lead to frustration, anger, and tears, she is the one to make things right. And Ms. Haberkorn is adept at shifting attention and doing just that.

Clairee [Cindy Veasey], the former first lady of the town and widow of its former mayor, and Ouiser [Gayle Sandlin is a last minute replacement in the role], the local outspoken curmudgeon and brunt of many jokes, are two long time "frenemies" whose behavior belies their closeness; and though each may appear to be self-absorbed, they come to the rescue to support Shelby and her mother M'Lynn [Cheryl Pointer Jones] as they face Shelby's choices and consequences of having a baby.

There were a few tentative moments on opening night, but these will surely be ironed out as the sold-out run continues. -- With Shelby's death, M'Lynn's anger builds; Ms. Jones is impressive in her impassioned speech in defense of her relationship with her daughter as she roars "I was supposed to go first" and that "I want to hit something", to which Clairee grabs Ouiser and relieves the tension by shouting "Here; hit this". Only people who love and trust one another can get away with this, and the Depot audiences are in for a treat as they watch these seasoned actresses at their best.