Laugh, cry, and laugh again at Enter State Right’s ‘Steel Magnolias’
PORT HURON, Mich.–A story like Steel Magnolias remains popular with all sorts of viewers not because of plot twists, steamy romance, shocking elements or slapstick humor. It’s all about relationships—relationships that feel real, feel familiar and vulnerable, and that’s relatable to most people.
Many of us could see ourselves in the very situations that these characters face, and could see ourselves reacting in the same manner.
Enter Stage Right takes the script by Robert Harling and a cast of six women, under the leadership of director Kaylee Loxton, and invites us into the 1960s era beauty parlor of Truvy. The story takes place at four different times over the course of three years; in the opening scene the parlor is reserved for Truvy’s closest friends—Clairee (Cindy Garavaglia), Ouiser (Donna Parkhurst), M’Lynn (Kimberly Townsend Armistead) and daughter Shelby (Madison Bondarek); on the occasion of Shelby’s wedding. Truvy (Lisa Kramp) is assisted in their preparations by her newest employee Annelle (Sara Prapotnik).
Shelby is optimistic about her future, even though she lives with diabetes, but her journey to independence generates some conflict with her protective mother. A strong mother-daughter bond is apparent in spite of the conflict though, as are the bonds of friendship among Truvy, Clairee, Ouiser and M’Lynn. Annelle is new in town, but the others treat her with kindness and encouragement, quickly accepting her into their circle.
As the story moves forward, Shelby makes a life decision that has major implications for her health as a consequence of her diabetes. While things initially turn out okay, there are devastating after effects that the women must face together. Throughout the story, laughter plays a strong role, not only as a way the women connect with each other but also as a way they manage disappointment and tragedy.
No story about relationships can be successful without interesting and genuine characters, with strengths, flaws and life circumstances that feel like our own. Reserved Annelle is reluctant at first to tell too much about herself in the beginning because she has been humiliated and abandoned by her husband. Energetic Clairee has lost her husband and is in search of something besides local high school football (a passion she shared with her husband) to give her life new meaning. Sarcastic Ouiser, who lives next door to M’Lynn, has been through a couple husbands herself, but now takes joy in tormenting M’Lynn’s husband in neighborly feuds. Caring M’Lynn must navigate the complexity of watching her child become an adult. And cheerful Shelby has a way of turning lemons into lemonade; even on her overcast wedding day, she remarks “It’s like God’s not trying too hard, so I don’t gotta either.”
The cast seems like a comfortable group that could be caught at a salon together. Audiences will fall for Bondarek’s Shelby, who holds her own in a roomful of strong female personalities, and even comes back at them with confident and quick-witted responses.
Parkhurst’s Ouiser is responsible for a good deal of the laughs, possibly because most of the audience knows someone just like her—perhaps an aunt who tells it like it is, but does so with a wink. She elicits tears too; in fact, watching Ouiser’s reaction to M’Lynn’s shattering narrative was almost more powerful than the narrative itself. In the 1960s Ouiser might have been called “spirited;” today we could call it “snarky.” Either way, Parkhurst makes Ouiser into a memorable personality. Garavaglia’s Clairee sold a very believable relationship with Ouiser, one with a sarcastic exterior but a warm and caring center. The room for improvement in this production is probably the dialogue that feels rushed in places. Not only would the women have felt more “southern” if they had slowed the pace of their dialogue at times, but moments such as M’Lynn’s angry outburst near the end could have more impact if some of the lines were allowed to breathe for a moment after being delivered.
Set design by Regina Spain offers just the right amount of detail. Even though the story takes place entirely indoors, there are strategic hints of the exterior, such as shingles, clapboards and a cupola.
If you can handle laughing, crying and laughing again with this group of women who might symbolize your own friends and neighbors, take a friend (and a couple tissues) to the Citadel Stage in Port Huron for Steel Magnolias, playing through March 15.