In 1987, Robert Harling wrote a short story which became a play to help him deal with the anger he felt at the death of his beloved younger sister due to complications from diabetes.
The play was “Steel Magnolias,” which opened last Friday evening on South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage Auditorium.
It opened off Broadway in 1987 and two years later became a movie. Since then it returned (briefly) to Broadway in 2005 and next month will air as a Lifetime channel movie. Whether it helped Harling — who turned from playwriting to scriptwriting — or not, it has entertained many audiences since then.
The original script calls for six women. The film and the TV movie added men. While producers of those vehicles must have felt the need of male presences, it works as well if not better by leaving the off-stage men to the imagination of the audiences. After all, it is the women, not the men, to whom Harling’s title was referring.
In the quarter century since its first production, “Steel Magnolias” has proven itself a solid choice for community and regional theater companies around the world. With its focus on the redeeming qualities of real friendship, it offers an ageless application to audiences of all ages.
Under the direction Debra Godwalt-Swerman, the sextet of actresses keeps the dialogue moving. Audiences familiar with the script must realize the abundance of cliched one-liners which can be successfully integrated by a veteran cast. There are a lot of laughs but not a lot of substance until the final scene of the two act, four-scene “dramady,” which covers a time period of several years. For the most part, the “action” here is relegated — not necessarfily — to sitting or standing and delivering lines.
“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” says Truvy Jones (Shelly Ambroziak), owner/operator of Truvy’s Clip ‘n ‘Curl, a small beauty shop in Chinquapin, LA., where the ladies gather each Saturday morning for coffee, gossip and the latest (?) hairstyles.
Today, the focus is on Shelby Eatenton-soon-to-be-Latcherie, who will walk down the aisle later in the day. As played by Elizabeth Bonne, Shelby is a girl of spirit, humor, courage and endless empathy. She knows what she wants, whether it’s babies-breath in her bridal coiffure or a baby in her newly-formed family, and she allows nothing to lessen her calm-but-steely determination. Bonne creates a fully realized character that carries the ring of truth.
As her mother M’Lynn Eatenton, Pam Gunterman delivers a heartbreaking descripton of her daughter’s death in a beautifully understated fourth scene monologue. Unfortunately, it is too soon replaced by a screeching breakdown that is way too high on the decible level to be moving.
Around these two swirl the wisecracks delivered by Truvy (Shelly Ambroziak), everyone’s favorite shoulder-to-cry-on and keeper of under-the-dryer secrets; Annelle Dupuy-Desoto (Michelle Miller), Truvy’s latest employee who goes from deserted bride to hippie chick to born again Christian, wife and mother to be; Clairee Belcher (Martha Branson-Banks), recent widow, football fan and eventual owner of the town’s radio station; and Ouiser Boudreaux (Marty Smith), bad-tempered town curmudgeon whose angry outbursts are designed to conceal a good heart.
Scene designer Jacee Rohlick does her best to turn the very large stage into an intimate beauty shop. The props committee headed by Teri Szynski has procured the appropriate hair paraphernalia including one working shampoo bowl. The change to the Christmas season between scenes one and two could, however, use a lot more holiday trappings, especially since the decoration is supposedly the work of arts-and-crafts maven Annelle who is enamoured with “glitz.”
“STEEL MAGNOLIAS” plays through Sept. 23 in the theater at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For information and reservations call (574) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org