(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal)
In TexARTS’ new production of Steel Magnolias, an old sign hangs on the wall of a beauty shop in Chinquapin, Louisiana, with the following inscription: "I’m only as strong as the girlfriends I have, the cocktails I drink, and the hairspray I use." This aphorism, more than anything else, sums up Robert Harling’s modern classic dramedy, and TexARTS’ production of the play showcases some talented performances undergirded by charm, heart, and dynamic staging.
Any contemporary production of Steel Magnolias has to contend with the same factor as a production of A Streetcar Named Desire – an iconic film version, very loyal to the original play text, that features famous performances burned into the minds of most audience members.
TexArts’ current version does, to an extent, succumb to this problem, with a few interpretations of Hurling’s characters that veer close enough to the 1989 film version to be unfavorably compared.
However, director Christina J. Moore creates an engaging stage picture, with movement, levels, layers, eye-catching colors, and small touches of actors’ business, that allows for the production as a whole to stand on its own. She is helped in this regard by a pitch-perfect design team, who create scenic, prop, lighting, and costume/makeup/hair design that make the audience feel like they have left a theater and are sitting just behind the mirrors in a small town beauty salon. Most remarkably, the audience gets to witness actual, practical hair styling happening on stage, a bit of naturalistic theatrical magic that proves quite impressive (even if it does lend to some painfully long blackouts between scenes).
Within this meticulously crafted stage world, several strong performances are able to entrance the audience.
Jenny Lavery’s Shelby serves as the heart of the play, a young woman whose empathy, quiet wisdom, and big heart (in a frail body) brings the other characters together and provides much of the impetus for the plot.
Babs George, as Shelby’s mother M’Lynn, shows a stoic pride and furious love that departs from Sally Fields’ filmic portrayal in an interesting and engaging way.
Aly Jones similarly crafts a fresh interpretation of Annnelle, the young apprentice at the beauty shop and town newcomer who, in inelegant hands, could serve as an audience surrogate with no real character of her own. Jones, however, shows us a nervous young woman who is in the midst of massive life changes, some good and some bad, which we see play out as the story progresses.
Rounding out the cast are Linda Bradshaw, as Clairee, and Sheila Lucas, as Ousier, who together provide much of the play’s comedic moments, while Allison Orr’s Truvy keeps the plot (and the beauty salon) moving along.
The ultimate star of this production, though, is Moore, whose direction, staging, and collaboration with a magnificent design team carry the play through sometimes uneven performances and create an emotionally rich evening with a great deal of warmth and heart.
"Steel Magnolias" continues through Oct. 24. www.tex-arts.org