Chinquapin, Louisiana, the fictional setting of Steel Magnolias, is one enchanting place. You don’t see much of it in Robert Harling’s play – the whole show takes place in the town beauty parlor – but you learn so much about the town, from the local obsession with football to the way the magnolias bloom, that after two hours you feel like you’ve soaked up a lot of the local culture.
That’s a big reason why Steel Magnolias has been revived onstage so often since it debuted in 1987. And it’s a big reason why Bucks County Playhouse’s new production feels so inviting.
Harling’s play is the story of six women who spend time at the salon gossiping, trading recipes and, oh yes, occasionally getting their hair done. It’s filled with dozens of funny, quotable jokes, although many of those jokes are one-liners (“An ounce of pretentious is worth a pound of manure”) that don’t pertain to the plot or seem intrinsic to the characters.
While it’s mostly enjoyable, Steel Magnolias can sometimes feel creaky. The tone established in the first scene is so light that when conflict between new bride Shelby and her concerned mother M’Lynn arises in scene two, the transition from comedy to drama is clunky. And even though Harling’s dialogue repeatedly hints that tragedy is on the way (as when one character ominously tells another “You look a little pale”), when that tragedy finally does arrive, it seems less a natural development than a graceless, tear-jerking plot device.
But the six characters are all endearing, determined and admirable, and they come off as both true to life and larger than life. And Director Marsha Mason’s production persuasively establishes a tight bond between the characters.
Patricia Richardson’s performance as M’Lynn grounds the show in reality; her angry monologue in act two is heartfelt and moving. Jessica Walter (as Ouiser) and Susan Sullivan (as Clairee) trade quips and glares with panache, while Clea Alsip’s sunny Shelby is a nice counterpoint to the sometimes cynical characters that surround her. Elaine Hendrix is engaging as the blunt-talking hairdresser Truvy, and Lucy DeVito, as Truvy’s assistant Annelle, makes her character’s journey from nervous newcomer to valued colleague believable. And all the actors do convincing Louisiana accents.
Lauren Helpern’s tan-and-purple set design provides a nice framework for the actors, and Mason’s technique of having the actors stare into the audience – as if they were peering into a beauty shop mirror – helps the actors create a connection with the audience. You’ll feel as if you know these six indomitable ladies, and you’ll wish you could spend more time with them.
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including an intermission.
Talking with Susan Sullivan About ‘Steel Magnolias’ at the Bucks County Playhouse by Tim Dunleavy.