- November 17, 2021
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“I don’t see plays cause I can nap at home for free.” Somebody get Ouiser to the Milwaukee Rep — their terrific production of Steel Magnolias, directed by Laura Braza, is not one to nap on.
Maybe you’re already a fan of this beloved story, particularly the film starring such icons as Sally Field and Dolly Parton. Or maybe, like me, you’re going in with a vague knowledge that Steel Magnolias takes place in a salon in the 1980s and centers on the bond between a group of women. And if you didn’t already know that, well, you do now.
Steel Magnolias debuted as a play in 1987, inspired by the life-changing experiences of playwright Robert Harling. It’s a tenderhearted tear-jerker with ample humor, memorable one-liners, and enough feel-good story arcs to keep it from being an all-out sob fest. In short, this show strikes a perfect emotional balance that steals your heart and splits your sides.
Set in the town of Chinquapin, Louisiana, Steel Magnolias takes place entirely within Truvy’s beauty shop. Hers is the place to tease your hair til it’s closer to God and spray it within an inch of its life, all while catching up with friends and frenemies. As the play opens, sweet-n-sassy shop owner Truvy (Rebecca Hirota) is welcoming a new employee, the fresh-faced Annelle (Maeve Moynihan). Among the salon regulars are the genteel Clairee (Tami Workentin), the late Mayor’s wife, and mother-daughter duo M’Lynn (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and Shelby (Phoebe González). Later comes the crotchety Ouiser (Meg Thalken).
Steel Magnolias follows these women through a handful of seasons, from Shelby’s springtime wedding day, through the town Christmas festival, and so on. This is a chatty play that relies almost-fully on the performances, the script, and the rapport between these women. While big life events are talked about, we don’t see them happen. Instead, the audience experiences the anticipation and the aftermath within the oasis of Truvy’s salon.
While taking a bit to find a rhythm, the cast thoroughly delivers an engaging and sincere sense of friendship, keeping the audience on their toes in moments both humorous and heart-rending. Hirota’s Truvy is the glue, nicely holding the ensemble together. Moynihan’s wide-eyed Annelle is fun to watch as the character comes into her own. As Shelby, González brings a crucial spark and dreamy-eyed optimism. Utterly brilliant is Brooks as Sheby’s mother, M’Lynn. Her emotional swings prove the most dynamic and demanding of the bunch, and Brooks makes for a lot of teary eyes in need of wiping. She’s phenomenal.
In the midst of these incredible women, it was the two old biddies, Clairee and Ouiser, who won the show for me. Workentin and Thalken as Clairee and Ouiser, respectively, each bring tremendously fun, funny, unforgettable energy — as individuals and through all their brassy banter. To borrow words from Clairee, they’re “too colorful for words.” It’s performances and characters like these that make Steel Magnolias so immensely amusing.
While this all-female story celebrates the genuine joy to be found in intergenerational female friendships (and casting!) there is, I feel, one final character to applaud: the set itself. Scenic Designer Collette Pollard makes the Rep’s Steel Magnolias a visual stunner. Sculptural magnolia blossoms, terrifically larger than life, hang suspended over the scene of Truvy’s beauty shop. The salon itself keeps the eye dancing with its detail. While life’s pivotal moments don’t exactly happen within these walls, some of its biggest, most meaningful relationships do. The warmth and intimacy of the set, as well as lighting by Noelle Stollmack and costuming by Samanta C. Jones, further allows everything to click into place.
Steel Magnolias proves an endearing snapshot of a time, a place, a group of people. I imagine devotees of the film will find it fascinating to experience the play’s theatrical shifts. As for the newbies, I can confirm that the Rep has made a Steel Magnolias fangirl out of me. Arriving home after 11pm on opening night, I promptly streamed the film, so keen was I to stay immersed in the world of the play and revisit these characters. If that’s not a smashing success of a show, I don’t know what is.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
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