Review: ‘Steel Magnolias’ at Spotlighters

It’s the mid-1980s. The Oval Office is occupied by a former movie star, Al Gore has yet to create the Internet, and an aspiring actor from Alabama named Robert Harling lost his younger sister. Harling’s grief over her death inspired him to write a short story, then a play, then finally an award-winning film. All depict a version of the author’s family tragedy in a warm, loving light; and with astonishing humor.

‘Steel Magnolias’ at Spotlighters Theatre. Photo by Spotlighters Theatre/ShealyJaePhotography.

In Spotlighters’ current production of Steel Magnolias, its four-poster stage is transformed into a rural Louisiana beauty shop inhabited by a group of six southern women. They range in status from the late mayor’s widow to an abandoned bride whose runaway husband is a fugitive from the law. That these characters are partially defined by the men in and out of their lives isn’t all that surprising, given the age of the play; it also provides a context in which the audience is invited to celebrate how strong these ladies all are. If the setup sounds potentially troublesome for a community theater production in 2019, it is; but Spots does a laudable job here.

As two-thirds of the characters are women of a certain age, Steel Magnolias is a play rich with opportunities for older actors; and this cast contains some real gems. More about that in a moment. What Director Fuzz Roark’s ensemble lacks in racial diversity it makes up in chemistry: this group of performers not only draw together with grace and ease, they engage their audience.

Suzanne Young, as the shop’s owner, Truvy Jones, dispenses equal parts wisdom and mousse among her customers played by Hillary Mazer, Melanie Bishop, and Valerie Lash. These four are utterly convincing as lifelong friends who finish each other’s sentences and “laugh through the tears” together. Two younger women, bride-to-be Shelby (Karen Starliper) and newcomer Annelle (Erin Klarner) round out the group.

As the town’s power broker Clairee, Mazer delivers genuine sass, always with a beaming smile hidden just below her deadpan surface. Annelle (Klarner), the newcomer, is so tightly wound and twitchy she seems ready to come apart at the seams at any moment. Starliper’s pink-obsessed Shelby is fun and vibrant in ways that thoroughly win the audience’s sympathy in the second act. (If you don’t already know the story, wait to read the program after the play). Shelby’s mother is M’Lynn, who Bishop fills with firm stoicism just slightly tinged with vulnerability. Lash brings epic snark to her portrayal of Ouiser – hard as nails, with a heart of gold (natch).

Each of these women has a lot to do individually in this play, and the script gives them ample chances. The cast shines most brightly, though, as an ensemble that’s more powerful than the sum of its parts. They carry us along in a relaxed pacing that pushes the run time well past two hours. It doesn’t feel long, though so sit back and relax.

‘Steel Magnolias.’ Photo by Spotlighters Theatre/ShealyJaePhotography.

Set by Alan Zemla, lighting by Jessica Anderson, costumes by Laura Nicholson, props by Alexandra McIntosh, and sound by Roark all create a highly believable world in which Truvy’s business model “there’s no such thing as natural beauty” is brought to life with extraordinary accuracy and detail. Paul Saar pulls double-duty as stage manager and assistant director.

1980s top-40 hits fill the salon, at times underscoring a bit too loudly to hear the actors but always on-point to the period. The set and props masterfully make use of all the space available, and add whimsical details such as a hair-roller-decorated Christmas tree.

Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes including a 15-minute intermission.

Steel Magnolias plays through July 14 at Spotlighters – 817 St. Paul Street, in Baltimore, Maryland. For tickets call (410) 752-1225 or purchase online.