The first thing I noticed when I read through the program for Steel Magnolias, which we saw Saturday night (early bird subscription) at Actors Co-op (FB) in Hollywood, is that we had seen all of the actresses before. In fact, we had see them all on the Actors Co-Op stages. We’d seen Ivy in the recent Anna Karenina; Lori most notably in Ruthie and Me; Deborah is practically everything; Nan in A Walk in the Woods and 33 Variations; Heidi in Rope; and Treva in Man for all Seasons and 33 Variations. It reminded me of the glory days of REP East, where there was an actors ensemble that fit well and worked well together, and were like a family.
This casting, and this family, meshed perfectly with the themes written by Robert Harling of Steel Magnolias, which deals with the family you have, and the family you create. We last saw the show back in 2008 at the aforementioned REP East; before that, we saw the original Los Angeles production at the Pasadena Playhouse way back in 1988.
One advantage of having seen a show before is that I can steal the synopsis. Here’s what I wrote back in 2008:
This play was written in 1987 by Robert Harling. It is set in a beauty salon in rural Louisiana, and tells the story of six southern women: Truvy, Annell, M’Lynn, Shelby, Ouiser, and Clairee. The play begins on the morning of Shelby’s wedding to Jackson (an unseen character) and covers events over the next three years, including Shelby’s decision to have a child despite having Type 1 diabetes and the complications that result from the decision. Over these years, we see the friendships grow between the women, see the relationships mature. We see people change as self-confidence is gained and life moves on. But what underlies it all is friendship and strength. The title refers to that strength: “magolias” are a reference to southern women, and as for the steel, M’Lynn says it best when she indicates that men are supposed to be made of steel, but women are actually stronger. In 1989, the play was made into a movie (with additional characters) starring Dolly Parton (Truvy), Olympia Dukakis (Clairee), Shirley MacLaine (Ouiser), Sally Field (M’Lynn), Julia Roberts (Shelby) and Daryl Hannah (Annelle).
Basically, the play is a very funny ensemble piece about a group of women that have become like a family based around a shared beauty shop in small town Louisiana, just as men bond in barber shops. The story, as noted above, revolves around Shelby — her marriage, her having a child, and the subsequent decline in her health leading to her death. Through this character’s transition, we see how it changes the women around her: the shop owner Truvy and her assistant, Annelle; Shelby’s mother, M’Lynn; the wife of the former mayor, Claree, and the town grouch, Ouiser. The casting and direction by director Cameron Watson (FB) plays to the strengths of each actress, making the production seem effortless. Our production was marred by just a few line hesitations, but that seems to be common with this show.
As noted above, the ensemble was excellent. The center of everything was Nan McNamara (FB)’s Truvy, the beauty shop owner who knew about, as most importantly, cared about, all her clientele. As opposed to the more no-nonsense portrayals we’ve seen from McNamara in the past, this characterization was playful and for the most part happy and upbeat, and fun to watch. Her assistant, Annelle, was played by Heidi Palomino (FB). Whereas her characterization in Rope was bubbly and upbeat, her performance here was much more subdued, capturing a quiet soul dealing with a troubled marriage and attempting to restart her life, and growing and coming out of her shell — and finding herself — around this group of women. Palomino captured that path well, and you could see her character change over the years portrayed in the show.
As Shelby, Ivy Beech (FB) brought a joyful and youthful energy to the stage, capturing that characters’ positive nature and love for life. Her energy here was very different than in Anna; there was a transition from the controlled Russian nature to a much more youthful and joyful exuberance, and this fit Shelby well. Her mother, M’Lynn, was played by Treva Tegtmeier (FB). We’d seen Tegtmeier in more stern roles before in 33 and Seasons. Here, she captured a more motherly role: concerned that everything was right with her daughter and her family, and that her family was seen right in the community.
That brings us to the remaining, shall we say, comic relief characters. Lori Berg (FB) captures older women well, as we saw in both Ruthie and Violet. Here, she provided a more senior authority figure as the wife of the pre-deceased mayor. That experience gave her the ability to dish back as well as she received. Deborah Marlowe (FB) has wonderful character roles in almost every Co-Op production that we have seen, and appears to have loads of fun finding the comedy and humor in each character, bringing what appears to be an irascible nature to each. Her Ouiser here was no different: she was clearly having fun with this character and her attitude, and it came across in the performance.
Stephen Gifford (FB)’s scenic design did a great job of recreating a beauty shop inhabiting a former car-port, down to the metal trellis used to support the carport roof, and the flaky electricity. It had the right Southern character and feel to it. It was supported well by Abe Luke Rodriguez (FB)’s properties. Terri A. Lewis (FB)’s costumes seemed period-appropriate and worked well. This is a production that depends heavily on hair and wig designs, and Jessica Mills (FB) (whose bio didn’t mention she did the recent Matilda at 5-Star) work was up to the task. There were a few points where one could tell they were wigs (and I worried about the hair styling impacting the wigs), but for the most part the hair seemed natural, to fit the characters, and to stand up to the damage a beauty salon inflicts. Mills clearly has her work cut out for her repairing things after each show. Cameron Combe (FB)’s sound effects worked well — notably the opening booms — and Andrew Schmedake (FB) worked well to establish time and place. Adam Michael Rose (FB) did a great job of making the characters sound suitably Southern. Ellen Mandel (FB) provided the original music. Other production credits: Emma Rempel (FB) [Asst. Director]; Shawna Voragen (FB) [Stage Manager]; Jaime “Jai” Mills (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager]; Nora Feldman [Publicist]; Selah Victor(FB) [Production Manager]; Lauren Thompson (FB) [Producer].
Steel Magnolias continues at Actors Co-op (FB) in Hollywood through May 5. Tickets are available through the Actors Co-Op Website; discount tickets may be available on Goldstar. The show is very funny and very well performed, and well worth seeing.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Tonight brings us to the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for our rescheduled performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The next weekend brings the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (FB). The third weekend of April will bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The fourth weekend of April is open, although we may see Chris McBride’s Big Band at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and I may book a show for myself. Looking to May, the month starts out with Sister Act at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights, simply because we love the work of this theatre, and we want to see how a small theatre tackles this big show. The second weekend of May brings Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Universe (101) at The Main (FB) in Santa Clarita (we loved it at HFF18), as well as The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB). May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. Who know what the weekend will bring! June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB).
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.