Thalian Association has been on tour this summer. First they took Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” to the USS Battleship NC. Now they are bringing Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias” to the Erin E. McNeill Fine Arts Center at Cape Fear Academy. Directed by Heather Setzler, the cast moves through the bittersweet comedy of the script like a knife through butter.
“Steel Magnolias” has become an iconic story in American culture with the production of the 1989 film; the star-studded cast included Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine and Daryl Hannah, which was born from the 1987 Off-Broadway play that Harling wrote about his sister and her death. Set in one location, the enclosed carport- turned-beauty parlor of Truvy Jones (Michelle Braxton), the script chronicles the friendships of a group of women through some of life’s greatest joys and deepest sorrows. The dialogue is pitch-perfect; in fact, a frequent observation (and compliment to Harling) among women is how surprising it is that a man could capture it so perfectly.
It is a big day at Truvy’s: She’s just hired a new assistant, Annelle (Heather Lindquist-Bull), and Shelby (Courtney Poland Rickert) is getting married. Both Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn (Elizabeth Michaels), are going to be so nervous on this big day, and their hair must be perfect. If only M’Lynn’s husband, Drum, would call a cessation of hostilities with his next-door neighbor, Ouiser (Chris Miller)—if only for one day. But times of stress only exacerbate existing struggles like these.
Though Shelby and M’Lynn are the focus of the evening (with many subplots in the other characters’ lives), the show truly is an ensemble piece. The role of Ouiser is really the counterpoint to many aspects of the other characters. She is essential to balance the script and interactions. Miller holds that end of the bargain admirably. She manages to really give the journey of a person with an incredible shield of gruffness to keep out the constant disappointments of life. By dropping the shield she wins far more than imagined. It is her oldest and best friend, Clairee (Debra Gillingham), who can smooth any waters Ouiser troubles for others.
The widow of the mayor, Clairee is the perfect politician’s wife: beautiful, glamorous and unendingly gracious. Gillingham possesses a lovely singing voice and consequently is more well-known to Wilmington audiences for her musical roles. The chance to see her flex her acting muscles in a role as demanding as Clairee is a treat. She does not disappoint. Without question, she shows what true grit under an elegance looks like.
Like many mothers and daughters, M’Lynn and Shelby are locked in an eternal power struggle. It is a complicated relationship that can be hard to understand from the outside. Michaels’ M’Lynn exemplifies “I love you, I want the best for you; you should do it my way” attitude of mothering.
While Rickert’s Shelby represents a sassy, strong-willed younger generation, determined to do everything in her own way, until she has to turn to her mother for the ultimate, “You were right; I was wrong.” She’s very pretty, and comes from a financially comfortable family, so, clearly, she is used to a world that gives her what she wants. Except for one thing: her health. Shelby has a particularly difficult case of diabetes in an age before insulin pumps. There are a lot of complications, including how she wants to have a baby—something that would put a lot of strain on her already over-taxed circulatory system.
While Truvy and Clairee try to smooth the waters between mother and daughter (and Ouiser), Truvy is trying to sort out what exactly is going on with her new assistant, Annelle. The girl can do hair, sure—but the rest of her life seems to be a train wreck. Lindquist-Bull as Annelle is a delight to watch as she rides the waves of elation, deprivation and, ultimately, learns to find confidence in herself instead of outside herself. As the parallel to Shelby, it’s quite a story. Rickert’s Shelby grew up with privilege and has the noblest oblige attitude of those who have always had and never had to worry. But Annelle clearly comes from very little, and by sheer luck has fallen into Truvy’s lap.
As both young women marry and have children, their stories have different outcomes. For all the panache that Rickert moves across the stage, her big eyes constantly brimming with tears, Lindquist-Bull matches it. For one the world has nothing but adulation; for the other, constant whips. Physically they make the contrast incredibly clear.
No one can walk into “Steel Magnolias” in the South without a variety of preconceptions. Still, each actress makes her character her own—not replicas from the film. In addition, they enjoy the humor of the script tremendously. The women are having a great time together on stage. Together, they will weather many losses, including Shelby ultimately succumbing to the complications of her illness. To see that candle go out and the loss M’Lynn endures would be impossible to survive, without the love and support of a network like this. That celebration of strength in the face of tragedy is beautiful. And they will laugh along the way—along with the audience.
Mark my words, during Michaels’ final monologue after Shelby’s death, the house is filled with audible sobs and sniffles. I personally had tears running down my face before the end of the first scene, though I laughed with great joy repeatedly. Setzler and the cast embrace the blend of beautiful, painful, and “sometimes you have to laugh or you will cry” aspects of the script. It is a deft blending and it is executed beautifully.
Scenic designer Benedict R. Fancy has put together a hyper-realistic set that accentuates Truvy’s aesthetic in every inch. The exterior house siding and staircase that lead back into the house from the enclosed-carport-turned-beauty parlor are a particularly nice touch. Fancy has been making a name for himself as a designer with extreme attention to detail. All pieces of the beauty parlor come together seamlessly.
Setzler and cast deliver a remarkable and beautiful interpretation of a story that feels so real it can hurt. It is a magical night of theatre and carries a heft of heart with it, long after the curtain descends.