‘Steel Magnolias’ at Cockpit in Court by Amanda Gunther

The place to be this summer is the Chinquapin Parish in Louisiana. There’s all sorts of fun things going on down south, but the best of all is the wonderful gossip you’ll hear in Truvy’s beauty shop! All of these wonderful delights, from the red velvet armadillo cake to the blush and bashful pinks of a bright young bride’s wedding can be found as Cockpit in Court presents the timeless drama based on the Dolly Parton’s movie, Steel Magnolias. The lives of six southern women are fondly discussed through the age old tools of beauty shop gossip and the rumor mill in this fun loving classic with moments that will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you appreciate your life.

The set is absolutely stunning. Placed upstairs in the “cabaret” theatre, Set Designer Michael Rasinski turns the intimate space into the inside of Truvy’s shop. With a working hose sprayer for the wash chair and live electricity to the stage which enables the curling iron to heat and put curls into hair, Rasinski leaves no detail unattended. The walls are muted shades of pink and yellow, pink in homage to Shelby’s colors, and yellow because it was the 1980’s in the south. Rasinski’s final product creates the feeling that you are a part of the gossiping townsfolk who pop in for a touch up or a day of beauty, making the audience feel that much more included in the production.

Director Joey Hellman has a sensational team of six women who really bring this performance to stunning emotional climaxes. Hellman has crafted a sense of sisterhood and community among the actors, letting their relationships develop naturally. And although the women on the stage are not the stars of the film; line for line they bring these pre-established characters vigorous new life while leaving all of the classic characteristics that made us fall in love with them from the movie.

Hellman works with the actors to ensure that they all carry the southern accent of a woman in Louisiana from that time. It is strong with all the women, and is mostly consistent, but Clairee (Harriette Bush Clark) has the strongest and best carried accent throughout the performance. She speaks slowly, with a great fondness when she reminisces, each word sliding from her lips like a drop of water down the side of the lemonade glass on a hot day down on the bayou.

Every beauty shop gossip session needs someone to gossip about, and Annelle (Laura Weiss) gets that topic started by being the newcomer.  Weiss goes through several character changes (matched with no fewer than three complex wig changes) and evolves as the show progresses. Starting off Weiss embodies the nervous energy of a newcomer with a past to hide, jittery and jumpy both physically and vocally. And when she finds salvation in prayer her gestures and speech patterns become more calm and collected, heavily laced with a holiness that can only be found in someone who’s seen the light.

Shelby (Holly Gibbs) completes the beauty shop atmosphere by adding a level of gossip and advice uniquely her own. Truvy’s shop is already alive with the static crackle of everyone’s personal business but when Gibbs brings her bubbly good-natured character into the mix it’s like throwing glitter into the fireworks. Her youthful exuberance separates her from the older women of the shop in a good way; distinguishing that bounciness in her southern drawl from the more laid back and complacent sounds of the others.

Gibbs has intense moments with M’Lynn (Joan Crooks). As a mother and daughter pairing these two work extremely well together. The more intense moment happens when Gibbs has to announce a surprise of good news that to Crooks is anything but good news. The two bicker and banter without ever overstepping that line that would make them regret what was said. Crooks has a motherly tendency towards Gibbs, making the final scenes that much more mournful to watch. Crooks’s emotional break down at the end of the show supersedes even Sally Field’s portrayal of that heart-stopping moment; heavy raw anguish and grief streaming down her face as she shouts to all who can hear her of her pain. A stunning, breathtaking moment that will leave you in tears.

Truvy (Janise Whelan) has her moments, acting like the guiding force for the other women in the shop. When a moment of serious tension breaks the surface, Whelan is the first to respond, allowing the others to follow her lead and do the same. When Shelby’s secret of dialysis is discovered, Whelan’s face falls to that of disbelief and fright, and her emotional displays are contagious, leading the whole room to express similar opinions on their faces.

The comic gems of the show come in the form of Miss Clairee (Harriette Bush Clark) and Ouiser (Carol Conley Evans). Clark ensures that each laugh line is delivered with slow, purposeful articulation so that the jokes aren’t lost to the audience. And you’ll love Evans’s portrayal of Ouiser more than your luggage. The fiery old bat is every bit the cantankerous old bitty you expect her to be. Every time she enters and exits the beauty shop it’s in a whirlwind of stormy explosivity. And when she delivers her classic line “Kill, Red! Kill!” shouting out the door at the unseen Drum, she’s practically spittin’ nails.

The banter between Evans and Clark is the highlight of this already impressive show. Clark has a biting sarcastic tongue when she exchanges bars with Evans, and Evans is no saint on the return. Their catty repartee is riotous, especially during the opening scene in regards to one of Ouiser’s potential gentlemen callers. Clark delivers the stunning blow as Clairee, and when she delivers that classic line that everyone is waited for with baited breath, “Half o’ Chinquapin Parish’d give their eye teeth to take a whack at Ouiser!” the audience explodes into uproarious laughter; a moment that disrupts everyone’s tragedy with levity and gaiety beyond compare.

So this show may be too twisted for Color TV, but just remember, there’s no such thing as natural beauty, because if there was what on earth would we all need to go down to Truvy’s shop for?

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Steel Magnolias has played its final performance on Sunday July 1, 2012. For the upcoming productions of Cockpit in Court’s 2012 summer season, including Doctor Dolittle, Laura, and the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic Sunset Boulevard, click here.

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