Community Theatre Review: STEEL MAGNOLIAS at Footlighters Theater

Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling is one of the most successful and well-loved plays of our time. The most unique thing about the show, in my opinion, is how the playwright, a male, was able to capture such a tender women’s point of view, mixed with truth, beauty, and heartbreak. A comedic-drama about friendship, Steel Magnolias tugs at the heart strings while making us laugh uncontrollably. It is much more than merely a feminist play turned beloved “chick flick.”

The show is set entirely within Truvy’s beauty parlor (nice set designed by Hugh Abbott), where the women gather to laugh, gossip, cry, and offer friendship and understanding to each other. Unlike the 1989 film adaptation, the stage play features no male characters. The men in the women’s lives are characters which are mentioned in conversation, and in passing. This allows the focus to be on the individual women’s strengths, weaknesses, differences, and unique personalities. The individual characters are written so differently, and equally as convincing. Despite their differences in opinions, appearances, and ages, the women share an unbreakable bond that is fascinating to watch unfold on stage. It is so well written, in fact, that is it my opinion that it is hard to “get it wrong” when putting up this specific piece of material. It’s like pizza, even bad pizza, is still pretty good pizza. Fortunately, Footlighters, the oldest community theatre on the Main Line, is serving up something rather tasty.

The cast includes town outcast turned  Jesus freak, Annelle (played lovingly and comedically by Melissa Lesperance), the crotchety town grump Ouiser (Shelia Gardner)the frail but very charming Shelby (the winning Rebecca Whitten)matronly, blunt, and astute Clairee ( the hilarious Lauren Rozensky Flanagan), and Shelby’s mother, the eternal optimist M’Lynn (Janey Abbott) who all weekly gather at the glamorous Truvy’s (Allison Payne) beauty salon to gossip, swap recipes, and get their hair and nails done. Consisting of four scenes set over the course of three years, Steel Magnolias chronicles the events of these women’s lives: marriage, pregnancy, birth, death and everything in between.

The action is set 1985-88 in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, where all the ladies who are “anybody” come to have their hair done. Helped by her eager new assistant Annelle (who is not sure whether or not she is still married), the outspoken, wise-cracking Truvy dispenses shampoos and free advice to the town’s rich curmudgeon, Ouiser, (“I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years”); an eccentric millionaire, Miss Clairee, who has a raging sweet tooth; and the local social leader, M’Lynn, whose daughter, Shelby (the prettiest girl in town), is about to get married.

The ensemble, overall, came across as quite authentic, with very believable relationships and interactions. The comradery of these ladies was very apparent, and they all played off of each other rather well. The deep southern accents were for the most part consistent, although slightly dropped at various times by the actors throughout. As a community theatre that does not have access to formal training or a dialect coach, I felt they truly did a nice job.

Volume unfortunately was an issue for part of the performance. Some great “zingers” were lost in the shuffle, especially for Flanagan, who also seemed to be experiencing some slight, but unfortunate voice loss. It was refreshing to see the characters of Annelle and Shelby brought more to the foreground of this production, as they sometimes seem to be (intentionally, or unintentionally) greatly out shined by the shows more matriarchal characters. M’Lynn, often considered the shows protagonist, held a calm and confident demeanor, throughout the production. While at times it seemed, the actor was holding back early on in the play, it made her Scene 4 monologue all the more gut wrenching when she finally did open the flood gates and let it pour out.

A dynamic, useful and colorful set, against a strong, unapologetic female ensemble, and overall decent production value made for an entertaining evening at Footlighters in Berwyn. You will laugh and cry with this beautiful tribute to friendship, community, and the power of the human spirit. Catch Steel Magnolias for two more weekends, running until February 8th. Tickets on sale at https://footlighterstheater.com/.

Review by Melody Connell

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