We find ourselves laughing through the tears as we spend a couple of hours with six southern spitfires in the beloved comedy-drama Steel Magnolias at Cleveland Play House.
This warm, poignant all-female play, directed by Cleveland Play House’s Laura Kepley, is a first-time co-production between CPH and Playhouse Square. For those who first fell in love with the story through the 1989 movie starring Julia Roberts, this 1987 play takes place solely in Truvy’s Beauty Parlor in Chinquapain, La.
These southern belles put a high premium on beauty: This show features some great, long, curly manes and well-coiffed heads as hairdos are created live onstage. Truvy’s cluttered beauty shop is built on two levels featuring big hair dryers and salon chairs as well as a radio that has to be smacked to work.
But it’s the endearing relationships that ring true in this classic play by Robert Harling. The beauty salon is where the women gather to socialize and gossip, a place warm with friendship and support. Here, they share life’s joys and disappointments, including their frustrations with the men in their lives.
The story has its share of pathos as the women discuss trouble in their marriages as well as lost love. But under the skillful direction of Kepley, the production never enters into the overly sentimental. Kepley, proud to produce an all-female play with a nearly all-female artistic team, said the play reminds her of her mother and grandmother, who were “incredibly strong, funny, beautiful, intelligent and demanding women.”
The same can be said for the six wonderfully distinctive characters on the Steel Magnolias stage. The slim actress Allison Layman creates a young, diabetic Shelby Eatenton who’s a blend of delicateness and stubbornness, breathless in pink but also insistent on trying to live a normal life. Pretty Shelby romanticizes marriage but Layman also fleshes out a mournful side to the young woman who is soon disappointed with matrimony.
Layman also brings to life Shelby’s optimism and bravery when Shelby reveals she will have the baby she has always yearned for, against medical advice.
“I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special,” Shelby, who often seems on the edge of tears, famously says.
Mary Stout gets all the big laughs as crusty Ouiser, who’s the blunt, crotchety rich neighbor of the Eatentons. At the other end of the spectrum, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse paints the warm-hearted Truvy as a true joy who loves to live vicariously through others by hearing about their romances.
Among Truvy’s numerous, striking truisms is this: “There’s no such thing as natural beauty.”
Devon Caraway brings to life an insecure, desperate Annelle who finds acceptance with the other women and becomes a born-again Christian. Rounding out the cast are Erika Rolfsrud as M’Lynn, Shelby’s adoring yet tough mother; and Charlotte Booker as Clairee, the town’s widowed former first lady.
Steel Magnolias is a celebration of female friendship within a close-knit community. Playwright Harling was inspired to write the piece in an attempt to work through the loss of his diabetic sister in 1985. He originally wrote Steel Magnolias as a short story but transformed it into a play within 10 days. The work became an Off-Broadway hit in 1987.
Steel Magnolias is one of the most-produced American plays. CPH’s joint production with Playhouse Square, which is in an extended run into August, is beautifully directed and performed. Country-style musicians/singers Emily Casey and Maggie Lakis also do a nice preshow and create smooth transitions between scenes with their music.
Interestingly, in this live production, the heaviest heartbreak comes in a scene where Shelby is about to go into surgery, not in a final scene where her mother breaks down in despair. Under Kepley’s direction, that final scene feels more like a denouement with friends gathering to support each other in sorrow. But through Harling’s beautiful writing, which feels so true to life, even that scene contains humor.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj or follow her on Twitter @KerryClawsonABJ.