Ensemble rises above outdated weepie "Steel Magnolias"
Things have not changed much at Truvy's Beauty Spot in Chinquapin, La., the setting of Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias. " Time froze in...
Seattle Times theater critic
Things have not changed much at Truvy's Beauty Spot in Chinquapin, La., the setting of Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias."
Time froze in this burg (a stand-in for Natchitoches, La.) in the mid-1980s. Truvy's is still the carport-turned-salon where best gal friends gather to gossip; get their 'dos fluffed, teased and sprayed; and share their joys and heartbreaks. And it's still an era when quipping middle-age women with honeyed drawls and liberal opinions on sex and religion were very much in vogue on stage and screen.
Twenty years down the road, "Steel Magnolias" is still ubiquitous at community theaters everywhere, and it's even slated for a star-led revival on Broadway this spring. But watching Village Theatre's well-cast, well-performed version, it's also clear the play is a strange sort of time capsule of a culturally and politically distant America.
"Steel Magnolias" remains, of course, a likely cash machine for any theater with an older, mostly suburban audience — which makes the Village's decision to stage it now a pragmatic, if unimaginative, one.
That said, the company has at least mustered a strong ensemble cast and an assured comic director, Jeff Steitzer, for its mounting. The actors endeavor to steer "Steel Magnolias" away from the mawkishness the movie ultimately embraced, with its added hospital and cemetery scenes. And the cast snappily brings off the illusion that this is a teasing but devoted circle of friends who'd eat ground glass for one another, if need be.
Despite all that, the script is a relic of another epoch. Between all the raucous kibitzing on Richard Lorig's cheerful set, the story remains a weepie (inspired by the ordeal of author Harling's sister) about a physically doomed young woman with Type 1 diabetes, Shelby (hearty Kathryn Van Meter). She risks all for marriage and childbirth, to the consternation of her adoring mother, M'Lynn (Marianne Owen).
"Steel Magnolias," by Robert Harling. Runs Tuesdays-Sundays through Feb. 27, Village Theatre, 303 Front Street N. Issaquah; $32-$45 (425-392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org). Also plays March 4-20, Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett; $26-$42 (425-257-8600 or www.villagetheatre.org).
As in such '80s-hatched, estrogen-fueled TV sitcoms as "The Golden Girls," "Roseanne" and, of course, "Designing Women," there are lots of semi-racy quips and put-downs flying among the hairdryers. It's Neil Simon goes South, with jokes about armadillo-shaped wedding cakes and recipes requiring Karo Syrup and fruit cocktail.
More than a few of these one-liners are tired, some still merit a light chuckle, and every so often a real zinger lands — as when Kenny's Ouiser bluntly declares, "I'm not crazy. I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years."
What's most striking, however, is the contrast between this "Old South" comedy and today's "New South" — a region which produced the current president, and which is strongly influencing his political discourse and agenda.
The term "steel magnolias" now reaches beyond the domestic sphere, and refers to such influential New South female politicians as Republican senators Elizabeth Dole and Kay Bailey Hutchison. Also, the play's view of born-again Christians as naive, marginalized extremists seems antiquated now, given the political clout religious fundamentalists wield. So does the characters' amiable tolerance of homosexuality.
And then there's that sitcom format, which has largely played itself out in a theater world now trafficking in edgier, darker, more ironic comedy.
The play focuses on a female demographic that's largely been replaced in popular entertainment (especially on TV) by younger, urban, more sexually cavalier women — and by independent female midlifers who happen to be unusually svelte and glamorous.
Clearly, we've gone from the old "steel magnolia" prototype of the '80s, to the "desperate housewives" and "family values" advocates of today. The weird thing is, the popularity of the former persists — thanks, in large part, to a nagging cultural nostalgia for an allegedly simpler, kindlier time.
Misha Berson: email@example.com
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
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