Play Review: Steel Magnolias

Laughter through tears

“If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!” —Clairee

In Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, the center of the gossip universe is unarguably Truvy’s Beauty Salon, where the comedy-drama of Steel Magnolias unfolds in the lilting southern accents of six women. 

Robert Harling wrote the play to come to terms with his true life experience of losing his sister in 1985 as a result of diabetic complications after the birth of his namesake nephew, and was to be presented to his nephew as a short story. It wound up as an off-Broadway production and became a successful movie by the same title in 1989. Don’t let the tragedy theme scare you because make no mistake, Steel Magnolias is predominately a comedy with one liners as clever as bumper stickers and witty banter revolving around life in general, and mostly town gossip.
Salon queen and big-haired blonde owner Truvy (Katie Thomas), whose motto is “There is no such thing as natural beauty,” is a fireball of self realized philosophies from the perspective of a wife whose husband hasn’t left the TV couch for 15 years. In the opening scene, Truvy is auditioning a new stylist for an opening in her salon. Annelle (Caitie Campbell), a mysterious young thing who avoids answering personal questions, manages to gratefully land the job anyway.
In this, the most popular salon in the parish, the regulars are soon arriving to get their dose of Saturday beautification. The main focus is on the town’s most lovely and favorite young woman, Shelby (Hali Jones), who is about to be married that afternoon to one of the town’s native sons, Jackson.
Shelby’s mother, the controlling but loving M’Lynn (Nancy Klifman) is Annelle’s first client. While Truvy is primping Shelby with thousands of sprigs of baby’s breath, the parent-child dialog spars back and forth between the chairs, with debates concerning descriptive names of various shades of pink (Shelby’s favorite color) to her expected role as a traditional wife.
In leopard print chairs, waiting for their turn at glamour, sit the millionaire widow of the former mayor, Clairee (Elin Farrington) and Ouiser (Harmony Dawson). Clairee is wondering what to do with herself and her life now that she’s single and alone, while Ouiser, an eccentrically cantankerous old battle axe with “more money than God,” is entrenched in her solitude, which is constantly being disrupted by her neighbor M’Lynn’s husband’s gunfire. In fact, all people annoy Ouiser and she’d much rather spend time with her mangy old dog or any animal other than stupid humans.

We discover that the very independent Shelby is a Type 1 diabetic with physical challenges that dictate she should never conceive a child; however, a child of her own is what she desires most and she feels she can overcome these obstacles with her optimism and due caution. Annelle gives up her secrets to the sympathetic clan of women, confessing that her husband has not only taken everything and disappeared, forcing her to live in a boarding house, he’s also continually in trouble with the law. The bubbly Truvy offers Annelle her garage apartment.
As the story unravels and time marches on, Shelby announces she’s pregnant, much to her mother’s fear and dismay that Shelby is putting her own life in danger. The sassy Truvy is dealing with her sons growing up and bringing home girlfriends (“Louie brought his new girlfriend over, and the nicest thing I can say about her is all her tattoos are spelled correctly”). Shelby is trying to convince Ouiser to revisit an old romance who is quite interested in her (“I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years.”). Clairee has decided to travel, bringing back flamboyant gifts for the ladies (“The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize”). With Annelle’s now ex-husband in the clinker, the once awkwardly shy girl has gone from being the hot ticket in party mode into salvation mode when she finds Jesus and takes her new faith much too seriously for everyone, ever preaching to the ladies, who, despite constantly being reminded of Christian values, still adore her.
A year and a half later, Shelby’s health is failing as her kidneys were strained in the pregnancy and she must be on dialysis until a donor can be located for a transplant, but her son, little Jackson, is the light in her world. The best donor for a kidney match turns out to be her mother, M’Lynn, and surgery is set.
The title Steel Magnolias represents the delicate nature of these Southern women but also their strength and ability to find joy and laughter no matter what life threw at them, according to playwright Harling. And life does go on.
In her first-ever production as director, Kat Hassebroek does a magnificent job with the six ladies. She’s a talented veteran actor of many Crested Butte Mountain Theatre (CBMT) productions, and it’s a treat to see her talent expanded to other aspects of the stage. Sassy and sweet, Katie Thomas (Truvy) nails the poofy-tressed cosmetologist by inserting her own vibrancy into the persona. No stranger to the stage, Thomas is the epitome of an effervescent Southern belle.
Hali Jones (Shelby) has taken this main character part by storm. In her first lead role, she portrays her character as a spunky and rebellious daughter determined to be her own person while sometimes adding a bit of shock value, perhaps to push some of her mother’s buttons (“Well, we went skinny dipping and we did things that frightened the fish,” she says of her night out with her hubby).
In a fortunate and unusual casting, Jones’ mother in the play, M’Lynn, is actually played by her real-life mother, Nancy Klifman, who was a complete virgin to the stage and has one of the more emotionally complex parts to act out. She pulls it off with such conviction that she surely draws on her real life experience as Jones’ mom.
We’ve seen the multi-talented Harmony Dawson (Ouiser) in several CBMT productions now and her characters are always crowd pleasers. Previously performing with the improvisational troupe Life Unscripted, she depicts the edgy curmudgeon Ouiser with just a mere hint of softness, and she manages it as being a fine line between accident and intention. It’s good to see Dawson grace the stage again.
Another newcomer to both stage and town is Caitie Campbell (Annelle), who also happens to be Jones’ long-time best friend. Campbell launches into Annelle with both shy demeanor and revivalist exuberance and finds her voice as an actor.
It’s so very exciting to see Elin Farrington (Clairee) in her first-ever onstage performance. She’s an absolute natural for the sarcastic rich widow Clairee, and although Farrington’s much younger than her character in actuality, the magic of makeup was convincing, along with her performance. Exquisitely animated in real life, it’s just a step to the left for this talented young woman to enter the limelight as an
What a bonus addition to future production casting for the CBMT clan to have these three new actors onboard.
It’s been too long a hiatus for costume diva extraordinaire Kim Frayer, but she’s back and working her thread and design magic with a keen sense of style for this production. We’ve missed you. Welcome back. Major kudos to Alissa Laney for flawless stage management and her brother, Brent Laney, for the fabulous set design, as well as Dave Seymour for his expert light and sound execution.
It’s a great time to go out, grab a bite, and then go see this heartening and hilarious play and it’s only running through this weekend, so don’t miss it.

Steel Magnolias runs at the Mallardi Cabaret on 2nd Street, upstairs in the Old Town Hall, Tuesday, March 24, through Sunday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday, March 29, matinee performance at 4 p.m. For more information, or call (970) 349-0366.

Check Also

Q&A with the Chamber’s new executive director: Heather Leonard

By Kendra Walker Heather Leonard is the new executive director of the Crested Butte/Mt. Crested …