Review - Steel Magnolias

Matt Whorf
The Patriot Ledger
November 07, 2006
Laugh and cry at 'Steel Magnolias'

Braintree’s Curtain Call Theatre has served up a menu of laughter and tears to open its 2006-07 season, timeless dramatic values but in a decidedly contemporary setting.

That’s one of the more striking aspects of "Steel Magnolias," Robert Harling’s bittersweet comedy that first came to the public’s attention as a critically acclaimed and long-running off-Broadway hit in 1987. Two years later, the play reached the big screen in the hit movie version featuring the day’s Hollywood A-list of actresses, including Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah and Olympia Dukakis, and the tagline, "The funniest movie ever to make you cry."

Harling, previously an off-Broadway actor and voice-over artist, penned this, his first play as a comic-tragic tribute based loosely on the life of his sister, Susan. She had recently died from complications of diabetes, much like one of the main "Magnolias" characters, Shelby (played by Roberts on screen).

"Steel Magnolias," directed by Curtain Call acting/directing regular Micheal Pevzner, debuted Friday at the Braintree Theatre Playhouse, drawing a strong and welcoming turnout to the intimate, 65-seat facility on the corner of Commercial and Faxon streets. The show has three more scheduled performances this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

"The company (Curtain Call) picked this play to open the season because it's always been known for such good, meaty roles for women," said Pevzner, who retired four years ago as director of the theatre program at Massasoit Community College in Brockton and directed a production of "Steel Magnolias" at the college in 1991.

And meaty roles for women they are. The characters are a group of gossipy Southern ladies at Truvy's Beauty Salon, where all the ladies who are "anything" come to have their hair done in the small town of Chinquapin, La.

The women engage and exchange in sharp, funny dialogue in scenes of the typical working day at Truvy’s. There’s the outspoken host Truvy herself, played by Toni Ruscio of West Roxbury, who’s always quick to offer free advice with a cut, shampoo or manicure. Her eager, somewhat shy at first, new assistant Annelle (Kelly Shea Whitehead, of Hingham) is not sure whether she is still married because her marriage may not be legal.

Filling out the cast are the town’s two rich ladies, the curmudgeonly Ouiser, played by Hingham’s Sharon Evans ("I'm not crazy, I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years"), and the eccentric Miss Clairee, played by Braintree’s Meg Young ("If you can’t find anything good to say about anybody, come sit by me"). Also, the local social leader, M'Lynn (Marianne Withington of Plymouth), and her daughter Shelby (Katherine Moore of Bridgewater), "the prettiest girl in town" who's about to marry a "good ol boy."

Adding to the overall light and sometimes loopy atmosphere are the opening scene’s shotgun blasts resounding outside the parlor as M’Lynn’s husband, Drum Eatenton, picks off birds in the trees of his backyard in preparation for his daughter’s wedding reception that afternoon. Also, there’s the occasional rock and pop soundtrack as Shelby’s radio plays the hits by the Ventures, Roy Orbison and Billy Joel, among others.

But the mood turns serious over time, as the pair of two-scene acts transpire over several years. The focus becomes M’Lynn and Shelby, the daughter’s decision to have a child despite having diabetes and the tragic battle with her medical condition, which includes dialysis and a donated kidney from mom.

The overall cast flows well together in the ensemble format, lending spirit and sympathy to the characters, illustrating their grace and charm backed by inner strength symbolized in the play’s title.

"As Clairee, Meg (Young) was also in my Massasoit production of 'Magnolias' in the same role back in '91," Pevzner said. "I've also worked with several of the other actresses in this show. So I know them, and they know me, and we know how we work together."