Sunday, March 24, 2019

ASF: "Steel Magnolias"

Alabama Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Rick Dildine dishes out a production of Steel Magnolias as familiar as fried chicken, biscuits, and sweet tea, with a side order of collards and hot sauce. He sets the tone with an on-stage instrumental trio of local musicians who create a backyard barbeque atmosphere and facilitate scene changes that advance the passage of time.

Robert Harling's 1987 comedy-drama was written after the untimely death of his sister, made into a successful film two years later, and has hardly been off the boards since. Its popularity, no doubt, is due in part to his unwavering commitment to depicting the women of fictitious Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana as the eponymous title characters, the "steel magnolias" who are delicate as a flower and tough as steel when confronted by life's challenges.

Infused with acerbic wit and gentle humor to help deflect the seriousness of personal tragedy and a consciousness of one's own mortality, Dildine's production is staged "in the round" in the Octagon Theatre to enhance its intimacy with the audience. -- Scenic designer Scott C. Neale invites the audience into a comfortable wicker-furnished beauty salon, and Olivera Gajic's character driven costumes and Matthew Reeves Oliver's complimentary wigs show how the characters change over the 3-year time-span of the action.

Ostensibly the plot that revolves around the prettiest girl in town's wedding, ill-advised pregnancy, and unfortunate death, and her conflicted relationship with her mother; in fact it affords deeper insights into the lives of small-town Southern women whose life-long friendships are strengthened by catastrophic events.

As they gather in outspoken Truvy's [Marcy McGuigan] beauty shop for their standing Saturday hair appointments on the day of Shelby's [Gracie Winchester] wedding, Truvy hires newcomer to the community woman with a suspected past Annelle [Sarah Walker Thornton]; then we meet Shelby's successful psychologist mother M'Lynn [Alison Briner Dardenne], former First Lady of the town Clairee [Tracy Conyer Lee], and wealthy eccentric Ouiser [Greta Lambert]. -- And for the next two hours, they banter and talk trash about one another as only long-term friends can do, at the same time as they secure their bonds of friendship with compassion, support, and love expressed through Harling's masterful dialogue and the genuine talents of the ensemble cast.

Each of Harling's characters could have come from almost any community -- big or small, Southern or not; they are instantly recognizable, yet each is given a distinction that the ASF actors bring to individual life beyond archetype or caricature. -- Ms. McGuigan's tough speaking Truvy also has a soft side for Ms. Thornton's confused Annelle who changes from a timid newcomer to a spunky self-assured woman. Both Ms. Lee and Ms. Lambert seem to relish in their characters' continual sparring, yet they are quick to forgive one another: as world-traveler Clairee says "I love you more than luggage", and Ouiser explains her demeanor with "I'm not crazy; I've just been in a bad mood for 40 years." In typical mother-daughter disagreements, Ms. Dardenne's M'Lynn's concern for her daughter's well-being is countered by Ms. Winchester's Shelby standing up for making her own decisions; though they argue, there is never a doubt that they love one another.

While there is no room for them in this estrogen filled play, the men who never appear on stage wouldn't dare to intrude on the women's domain in the beauty shop because they can only relate to things they can "shoot...stuff...or marry", and prove to be helpless in tragic times, leaving the women to live up to the eponymous title "Steel Magnolias".

When Ms. Dardenne's grief-stricken M'Lynn had the courage to stay with Shelby till the end and was proud to have been able to give her daughter life a second time, her breakdown is shattering, and the other women are her only resource for healing.

The actors in this tight ensemble appear so comfortable in their individual skins and with one another that they emerge as much as if they had known one another all their lives...a flawless ensemble. -- Though Truvy's beauty shop slogan -- "There's no such thing as natural beauty" -- might bring in her customers, in this production of Steel Magnolias the most natural beauty of true and resolute friendship overshadows any cosmetic enhancements.