Review: ‘Steel Magnolias’ by L.A. Theatre Works at George Mason University Center for the Arts

Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias is a heartbreaking story that exemplifies the female bond and illustrates the resilient strength that bolsters six women from a small southern town through times of happiness and deep sorrow.

Elisa Bocanegra (Truvy) records before a live audience for L.A. Theatre Works. Photo by Matt Petit.
Elisa Bocanegra (Truvy in Steel Magnolias) records before a live audience for L.A. Theatre Works. Photo by Matt Petit.

Brian Kite served as the director of the play–though this is not your usual live theater production. L.A. Theatre Works puts on live readings of radio plays. The actors stand at microphones, facing the audience for the entire show. There is also a row of chairs upstage, where the cast goes to sit when not in a scene. There are no props, so the basic motions, like taking a phone call or removing an item out of a drawer, are pantomimed.

For those unfamiliar with Steel Magnolias, the story takes place in a salon, owned by Truvy (Elisa Bocanegra), in a town called Chinquapin, Louisiana. To imply the salon setting, there are thin sheets hanging from the rigging, with projections (designed by Kate Johnson) that create the backdrop of Truvy’s store. The images change slightly throughout the reading to signify the passing of time–like the addition of lights and a decorated Christmas tree in the winter.

Annelle, played by Cerris Morgan-Moyer, is Truvy’s brand-new assistant and comes packed with a mysterious history. Truvy, being the gossip that she is, is fascinated by Annelle’s past (and, quite frankly, any other morsel of news or scandal she can collect), acknowledging that she lives vicariously through others because her home life is intolerably boring.

Morgan-Moyer perfectly plays the young and naïve Annelle and, despite the character’s seeming weaknesses, proves to be an incredibly strong woman, who picks herself up and marches on to better her life after being robbed and abandoned by her husband.

There are three other female performers (the cast is composed of six women in total), who visit the Salon every Saturday. Clairee (played by Patti Yasutake) is the widow of the former Mayor of their small town and now struggles, good-spiritedly, to figure out how to redefine her life without her beloved husband and First Lady duties.

Clairee’s unlikely best friend is the crotchety Ouiser (Shannon Holt). Holt and Yasutake are a great pair and their back-and-forth banter is hysterical. Ouiser has a heart of gold, hidden beneath a very prickly personality, but Clairee sees right through her as do the other ladies in the salon. Ouiser is sharp-tongued and sassy, determined not to show any sign of caring for anybody, but when push comes to shove, she goes above and beyond to support the people she loves.

Then there is M’Lynn (Inger Tudor), social worker, mother, and next-door neighbor of Ouiser. There are multiple sub-plots to the story, but the main thread centers around M’Lynn and her daughter, the beautiful but breakable Shelby (Monica McSwain), who is getting married the same day that the play begins.

Inger Tudor (M'Lynn in Steel Magnolias) records before a live audience for L.A. Theatre Works. Photo by Matt Petit.
Inger Tudor (M’Lynn in Steel Magnolias) records before a live audience for L.A. Theatre Works. Photo by Matt Petit.

Tudor and McSwain offer-up an incredibly real and endearing mother-daughter pair. Shelby is a diabetic, which has a large impact on her life, and M’Lynn is on the border of being overbearing, but her intentions are always good and come from a place of desperate concern for Shelby’s health. The two disagree often, about little things like color palettes to more serious things like Shelby’s ability to take care of herself, but the loving devotion of the two is never in question.

Shelby is doted on by the women, and McSwain too instantly captures the audience’s heart, embodying Shelby’s beauty, upbeat character, and kindness. Throughout the play, Shelby battles to reconcile what she wants for her future and the limitations of her body.

Steel Magnolias is an emotional journey with many dramatic and poignant scenes. At the top of the show, Shelby has a hypoglycemic attack, which not only demonstrates the severity of her disease but shows how tight the group of women are as they all remain calm and rush to help M’Lynn tend to her daughter.

The overall production was wonderful, and my only suggestion would be some extra attention to the pantomiming, which was not consistent and so tended to distract rather than enhance the performance. In a similar critique, many phone calls take place but are not believable. The actor on the call moves too quickly through their lines to allow time for the other person to say anything. However, these are very minor and fixable issues.

L.A. Theatre Works’ Live Radio production of Steel Magnolias illustrates the beauty of friendship and the support that can help you wade through life’s hardest times. In this era of smartphones, the necessity of human connection is worth remembering and celebrating. Robert Harling’s story delivers the beauty of shared pain and unflinching camaraderie. Something that is needed now more than ever before.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 10-minute intermission.

Steel Magnolias played for one night only, October 14, 2018, at L.A. Theatre Works, performing at the George Mason University Center for the Arts Concert Hall – 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, Virginia. For tickets to future events at George Mason University, go online.

Sound Designer Mark Holden, Lighting Designer Daniel Ionazzi, Costume Designer Ruoxuan Li, Scenic Designer Rich Rose, Music Supervisor Ronn Lipkin, Associate Artistic Director Anna Lyse Erikson, Assistant Director, and Assistant Stage Manager Margaret Starbuck, Technical Director and Touring Stage Manager Leia Crawford.