Encore Michigan

Steel Magnolias blooms at The Riverbank

Review May 14, 2023 Paula Bradley

MARINE CITY, MI–The Riverbank Theatre in Marine City has brought Steel Magnolias to the stage this spring.  This story, by Robert Harling, has unofficially settled into the category of “modern classic,” due in part to its small cast of witty, relatable characters, and the simple setting in which we view them.

Brittany Everitt Smith and Kathy Vertin direct the cast of six women in the tale that takes place entirely in a home-based beauty salon, owned by Truvy (Brittany Everitt Smith).  The close-knit group of friends that gather there includes neighbors M’Lynn (Diane Hill) and her adult daughter Shelby (Stephanie Graham), recently widowed Clairee (Connie Cowper), cynical neighbor Ouiser—pronounced Weezer—(JM Ethridge), and new stylist Annelle (Mallory Green), who is also a newcomer to the small Louisiana town.

The long-standing relationships among the women (except Annelle) are apparent from the start.  Annelle, quite noticeably the outsider, is not sure what to make of their friendly barbs and sarcasm, having recently come from a traumatic personal situation. The event that dominates the first scene—the imminent backyard wedding ceremony of Shelby—reveals many things, such as the way the women use humor to cope with the many stresses of life: handling neighborly disputes, finding a new normal after losing a spouse, dealing with a lazy husband, managing an overprotective parent.

The relationship between M’Lynn and Shelby is the most serious, as we watch M’Lynn struggle to surrender her role as Shelby’s protector, while Shelby grows more independent. But the friends never let that gravity linger too long before puncturing it with mocking or self-deprecating remarks. Even Shelby does not allow M’Lynn to remain uptight for more than a few moments, before rolling her eyes and poking fun at her in a loving way.

As the scenes progress, we learn about Shelby’s health issues, which are complicated by her life choices, and which cause more anxiety for M’Lynn.  Annelle charts a new path in life, which sets her apart from the others in a different way, even though she seems comfortable within the group.  We become more accustomed to Clairee and Ouiser’s jabs at each other, and the way Truvy always brings the topic of conversation back to hair styling before things get too serious.

In the final moments of the show, after the emotional tension has been eased by humor one more time, Ouiser teases Annelle in her typical sarcastic fashion.  When Annelle finally lightens up and responds with some wit of her own, we realize she has truly become a member of this sisterhood.

As an audience, we can honestly relate to these personalities.  We have had to break an awkward silence with a joke.  We have had to referee disputes between people we care about. We have had to swallow our disapproval like a bitter pill when loved ones make choices we wish they hadn’t. We have had moments when the right words seem elusive in the face of tragedy.  We have even been M’Lynn, who spends her life being the steel that holds the family together, but eventually loses control in a wave of anger and grief.  If we are lucky, we will be the person who can elicit a laugh just when the other emotions are about to spiral out of control.

What this production does well:  Makes the humor and jest seem natural and friendly; makes us feel like we could sit in that salon and be part of the conversations happening there. What could be improved: some of the make-up was unbalanced and a few faces appeared washed out, which was surprising in an experienced cast. More lip color and defining eye color, plus a bit more cheek color would be perfectly appropriate on characters who regularly gather at a beauty salon. Cheek and jaw contour could be better blended.

The highlights:  Shelby’s eye-rolling attitude which captures a young woman’s attempts to define herself as an adult; Annelle’s uninhibited way of stating the truth as she sees it;  Truvy’s skill at keeping them grounded; Clairee’s deadpan delivery of unexpected comments. M’Lynn’s emotional outpouring after remaining cool and reserved throughout the show was especially powerful in a show that is mostly a comedy.  JM Ethridge may have stolen the show with her acerbic portrayal of Ouiser, and her ability to harness an occasional silent pause to great effect.

This show is geared toward adults, though language and subject matter are mild.

Steel Magnolias is playing at The Riverbank in Marine City through May 28, 2023.