Robert Harling wrote his sweetly Southern play Steel Magnolias back in 1987. However, most people familiar with the story know it because of the 1989 film version starring such legends as Julia Roberts, Sally Field, and Dolly Parton. And, in many ways, NC Theatre’s production, onstage through November 13 in the intimate A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater and directed by Lauren Kennedy, pays homage to the film. Many of the costumes are reminiscent of those worn by the film’s actors, and Felicia Finley, who plays Truvy, is a dead ringer for Dolly Parton, not just in looks but in voice as well. Still, though, this production manages to shine all on its own. Its wit, charm, and resonance are proof of Harling’s genius and the timelessness of his writing, and the talented female cast breathes new life into this beloved classic.
The story starts in the same place it will end – Truvy’s beauty shop. Indeed, it’s the spot where all of the onstage action, if you can call it that, takes place. Harling’s script bravely relies solely on the strength of its incredible dialogue, so audience members hear, through conversation, about things that have transpired. That’s not to say, though, there isn’t a lot to see here. Kennedy has her actors walking all around the beauty shop, gesturing, curling hair, hugging, and so much more. They are vibrant, alive, and not at all confined by the unchanging set.
Of course, characters like these can’t help but jump off the stage. There’s the dynamic Truvy, of course, but there are also the women who spend time in her shop and share their lives, dreams, and dramas with one another. There’s sweet, hopeful Shelby (Meadow Nguy) who is struggling with diabetes and the limitations the disease puts on her dreams. Then, there’s her disapproving-but-loving mother M’Lynn (Angela Pierce). They’re joined by the new-in-town Annelle, perfectly portrayed by Carly Grissom, and best friends Clairee (Alison Fraser) and Ouiser (Kathleen Garrett). Over the course of two hours, these women pour their hearts out to each other as their lives evolve and change, drawing the audience in for a touching, funny, and gripping emotional roller coaster.
The production moves smoothly from one scene to the next with only small, simple changes to signify the passing of time. These touches, like the production itself, are subtle but powerful. Nothing is cluttered or overdone. Instead, Harling’s gorgeous writing is allowed to take center stage, and honestly, this play is one of the few that works best without a lot of fancy touches. That’s not to say, however, that the production lacks thought or attention to detail. It has those things in spades. The gleaming set and 80s costumes transport viewers back to a time when people were more connected, when they swapped recipes and shared magazine clippings, and the actors nail both the comedy and the sentimentality that are the hallmarks of the story.
Nguy is sweet and oh-so-vulnerable as Shelby, and her chemistry with Pierce helps to create a believable mother-daughter dynamic. Similarly, Fraser and Garrett play off of each other well and infuse humor in all the right places. Fraser, in particular, has a penchant for comedy and knows exactly when to draw out a line or make a face to drive the joke home. Finley brings the sass the script calls for, and Grissom truly shines as the trying-to-find-her-way Annelle. Her version of the character is perfectly imperfect, questioning, and ever-observant and alert. Together, these actors create the strong, multi-faceted women Harling intended all along. These are women you wish you knew in real life and who are, at the same time, reminiscent of real-life acquaintances. They allow you to admire Shelby’s strength and stubbornness while, at the same time, appreciating and understanding M’Lynn’s care and concern. In short, they do Harling’s characters the beautiful justice they deserve, which is no easy feat. Subtle lighting touches, dedicated direction, and even careful music choices also serve to bring this ageless classic to life.
Just as, no matter what happens in life, these women return to Truvy’s, audience members will want to turn to Steel Magnolias again and again. Unfortunately, though, there’s only a limited time to see this beautiful version of the play, so don’t wait. Get your tickets and travel back to 1980s Chinquapin, Louisiana. It’s a wonderful place to be.
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