Regional Reviews: St. Louis
All the men in this play, currently at the Tower Grove Abbey, seem to be out looking for their own "safe space" too, because there was apparently just something so uncongenial about male-female relationships in the South in the 1980s. (There really aren't any men in the play at all, unlike the movie, but they seem to hover in the distance, in the contexts of guns or football.)
And the play itself, directed by Gary F. Bell, is already my favorite Christmas gift, so much better than the drippy moviepartly thanks to all the hilarious lines. There are so many that Steel Magnolias rivals last month's Hamlet at the Rep for defining modern civilization through important quotes (in my world, anyway). It's also a "favorite gift" because of the beauty of the play itself.
But "there is no such thing as natural beauty," as Sarah Gene Dowling (Truvy, the parlor owner) reminds us, right away, as she interviews a new assistant hairdresser. It's not a fancy salon by modern standards, though the set by Josh Smith is finely detailed. And it's peopled by towering, thoughtful, hilarious Southern matrons: professional women and wealthy widows in Chinquapin, Louisiana.
Every one of the actresses on stage gives a full, funny, and insightful performance. Jenni Ryan is M'Lynn (the Sally Field character, from the 1989 movie), and the piercing intelligence of the character fits beautifully with Ms. Ryan's own presentation, which must crumble like a statue before our eyes near the end. Eileen Engel is outstanding as Shelby, M'Lynn's daughter, beautiful and buoyant and ready to take on the world on her wedding day.
I recently had a chat with a local actress about "film acting" versus "stage acting," and here the performers seem to hop back and forth between the two with ease. (Of course, if you're sitting in the back row, you may not be such a fan of "film acting" at various points here.) Perhaps it comes naturally to Southern women, that "quantum leap" from the personal to the presentational: performing for the group at some points, and only for themselves at others. One of my favorite actresses, Liz Mischel, plays the hilarious Clairee (the Olympia Dukakis role in the film), getting nearly every laugh, stylishly, with scarcely any visible calculation in the process.
The show even echoes ancient theatre, with Ms. Ryan's icy stares at Ms. Engel, as the younger woman exults in delighted madness over the prospect of having a child. The two have a long, introspective scene in semi-darkness, as one conjures fate.
But of course no one would ever accuse Steel Magnolias or Stray Dog Theatre of consciously summoning the ancient Greeks in a sassy little comedy like this. I would, however, accuse Ms. Ryan of having the power to plug in a ten thousand watt stare, to astonishing advantage, as a terrible mistake is being made, changing the lives of both Shelby and M'Lynn. And Ms. Engel is just such a fabulous bunny rabbit as Shelby; her joy is virtually indistinguishable from madness.
Director Bell responds to the idea this way: "We worked very hard to not turn that scene into a scene about anger. My feeling is that fear of the unknown, and frustration, is at the core of that scene. Shelby's beautiful rose-colored view of the world and her illnesscolored by M'Lynn's years of worry-through-strength is what I was hoping to achieve. Shelby does become a bit "mad" about the possibility of having a childher own child. M'Lynn does fear that her heart / world will break and split in half if this baby happens. So comparing these strong motivations to the Greekswho were masters at strong motivationsseems appropriate!"
There's something reckless and chaotic in Andra Harkins' performance as Ouiser (the Shirley MacLaine role in the film)I don't know why I kept expecting her to forget her lines and tumble off the stage entirely, but she is quite perfect as an actress; it's just that the shambolic character she's drawn seems so wild in a beauty parlor. And then she takes her silly hat off, in act two, and looks for all the world like the present-day Angela Lansbury, elegantly staring into a mirror. You can see why Clairee has such fun with her.
Sarah Gene Dowling is very fine as Truvy, the beauty parlor owner, and Alison Linderer is quietly realistic as the young Annelle, on her spiritual quest, but also as the other wild-card in the pack here. It all comes off as so real and alive, in spite of the two dozen blockbuster-famous punch lines: all those towering jokes we've re-told for the last 30 years suddenly catch you by surprise, when you're just surreptitiously observing them all in their natural habitat.
Through December 16, 2017, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):