By now, Truvy's Beauty Salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana, is one of the best-known literary landmarks of the New South. It is the tiny town's unofficial social hub and the setting for Steel Magnolias, a 1987 tearjerker by prize-winning Southern playwright and screenwriter Robert Harling. (If you only know the 1989 motion picture, adapted for the big screen by Harling and directed by Herbert Ross, you may be surprised that there are no men in the cast.)
The four well-to-do good old girls who comprise the regular Saturday clientele of salt-of-the-earth veteran beautician Truvy Jones (played by Rita Goss Coby in the current Theatre in the Park production) and her somewhat spacey and inexperienced assistant Annelle Dupuy Desoto (Vanessa K. Zitzmann) are a charming quartet of scrappy Southern belles, gossipy and quick with a quip, but equally quick with a Kleenex or a consoling embrace when a smart-aleck remark cuts too deep. There is a steely determination beneath their moonlight-and-magnolias exteriors.
Urbane and elegant M'Lynn Eatenton (Debra Zumbach Grannan) and her sickly daughter Shelby Eatenton Latcherie (Brooke Miller) have typical mother-daughter issues, complicated by Shelby's diabetes and other escalating health problems, whereas Clairee Belcher (Carol Loots) and Ouiser Boudreaux (Cheryl McConnell) are old friends who delight in making crusty comments about each other.
Debra Grannan gives a passionate and completely convincing performance as M'Lynn, but Brooke Miller is a bit too strident and in-your-face as the headstrong Shelby. Carol Loots, who seemed to be having trouble remembering her lines last night, is otherwise well cast as Clairee; and Cheryl McConnell has her moments as Ouiser, the beauty shop's resident curmudgeon. Rita Coby and Vanessa Zitzmann mostly provide comic relief as Truvy and Annelle.
TIP's production of Steel Magnolias, which opened April 23rd, still has far too many rough spots and many of the cast's characterizations could be a whole lot crisper. All in all, TIP guest director David Britt has his actresses strike far too many cute poses; and long musical interludes between scenes dissipate the show's dramatic tension.
TIP resident set, lighting, and sound designer Stephen J. Larson does his usual remarkable job of recreating and illuminating Truvy's Beauty Salon — complete with working sink and hair dryers — in all its glorious tacky detail; and costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson outfits these six aging Southern belles in a striking array of fashions suitable to their characters.
Although the show gained momentum in the second act, and received a slow-starting standing ovation at the final curtain, there is much fine-tuning left to do by director David Britt and his personable cast. With a little more polish, some of their performances as Robert Harling's colorful characters could be truly memorable.
Second Opinion: April 28th Front Row Center review by Alan R. Hall: http://hometown.aol.com/theonlyarhall/reviews.html.
Theatre in the Park presents Steel Magnolias Thursday-Friday, April 29-30 and May 6-7, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 1 and 8, at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 2 and 9, at 3 p.m. on the TIP main stage, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $12-$18. 919/831-6058. Note: On May 1st, there will be a special $35-a-ticket May Day Garden Tea Party, presented as TIP's first annual spring fundraiser. Theatre in the Park: http://theatreinthepark.com/2003-04_productions/steel_magnolias/steel_mag.htm. Internet Movie Database (1989 Film): http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0098384/.