Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling's 1987 play which is based on his experience with the death of his sister, is playing at Trinity Repertory Company through May 15, 2011. The play ran off-Broadway for years, spawned a feature film of the same name, is a favorite among college and community theaters and eventually had a 2005 Broadway run.
In the beauty shop setting, inane gossip shares equal time with the extraordinary moments in the lives of the ordinary women who are as much family as friends. The characters are written broadly and Mr. Harling cautions that they should not be portrayed as "clowns". Structurally, the play has difficulty transitioning from near-farce in the first act to tragedy in the second act.
Michael McGarty's curiously intricate set, along with the perfection of William Lane's costume design, transport the audience to small beauty shop nestled in a normally sleepy neighborhood in the fictional town of Chinquapin, Louisiana.
Truvy (a tarted-up Rachael Warren), the proprietor of the shop, whips up good cheer and good hair in equal measure. Annelle (Brown/Trinity student Alexandra Lawrence), fresh from the local beauty school, is struggling to adjust to the town in which everyone seems to know everyone else's business.
M'Lynn (Janice Duclos), a long-time client of Truvy, and her daughter Shelby (Brown/Trinity student Madeleine Lambert) are each in the midst of significant life transition. Their life-long friends, Clairee (Barbara Meek) and Ouiser (Anne Scurria) are there to celebrate the good times and provide a safe place to cry in the bad times.
Director Brian Mertes has mined new nuggets of humor, especially with the physical appearance of Annelle. There is also a moment of tenderness that I hadn't experienced in previous productions when Truvy turns away from the audience as Shelby talks about holding a severely premature baby, who doesn't survive. The moment creates an additional dimension, a possible back-story, for the character.
If I had the opportunity to use Trinity's Acting Company to cast Truvy, M'lynn, Clairee, and Ouiser, I would have done it differently. The actors who are miscast, not surprisingly, make it work. The real weakness in the production, however, is the running time. The new elements Mr. Mertes added include fancy entrances for each character and a musical numbers at the end of each act. Two minutes added here, three minutes there, ninety seconds here, a minute there...all interesting new elements.... but with so many of them, the production quickly becomes as over-accessorized as Truvy, herself.
Nonetheless, Trinity's current production of Steel Magnolias, under the direction of Brian Mertes, outclasses the handful of other stage productions I have seen in the past 20 years. My assessment includes the star-studded, but short-lived, Broadway production.
Ticket prices for Steel Magnolias range from $20 - $65 and can be purchased at the Trinity Rep Box Office, which is located at 201 Washington St., Providence, RI; by phone at (401) 351-4242; and online at www.trinityrep.com.
Photo by Mark Turek: Rachael Warren as Truvy and Madeleine Lambert as Shelby in Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias.