The Old Lyric Repertory Company opened its 46th season Thursday, June 14, with a crowd-pleasing production of the tragic southern comedy of manners “Steel Magnolias.”
The selection of this play by Robert Harling was a bold choice for the Old Lyric troupe. “Steel Magnolias” is best-known as the beautifully-executed and much-beloved 1989 film directed by Herbert Ross. But Hollywood successfully expanded the scope of Harling’s story by fleshing out male characters only mentioned in the play, plus adding more action, new dialogue and outdoor scenes. Returning to its original single-set, all-female, six-character staging, this version of “Steel Magnolias” seems both static and claustrophobic to audiences who have had more than two decades to become familiar with the film.
But director Terence Goodman has assembled a cast of gifted actresses who not only breathe life into Harling’s script, but also embody the seemingly improbable resiliency hinted in the play’s title.
Regional stage veteran Arika Schockmel plays Truvy Jones, the proprietor of the Louisiana beauty parlor in which the action of “Steel Magnolias” takes place. Schockmel skillfully plays Truvy as a caring friend to her customers who hides behind a tart tongue and a breezy manner.
OLRC alumna Tamari Dunbar is back as M’Lynn Eatenton, providing a wonderfully nuanced characterization as a professional therapist and socially prominent woman-about-town who can handle anything except her daughter Shelby.
Amanda Mahoney is equally perfect as Shelby Eatenton, a headstrong young woman pursuing marriage and motherhood even at the risk of her own health.
Mitzi Mecham and Jackie Fullmer share the spotlight as the play’s comedy relief. Mecham warmly portrays Clairee Belcher, a wealthy widow who is a much-needed voice of reason at Truvy’s Beauty Parlor, while Fullmer delivers an absolutely over-the-top performance as the obstreperous dog-loving Ouiser Boudreaux.
Young MarKaye Hassan rounds out the cast as Annelle Dupuy-Desoto, a newcomer to the beauty parlor. Given only a bare minimum of dialogue, Hassan still convincingly portrays a gradual transition from a stereotypical lost soul into a self-assured expectant mother.
“Steel Magnolias” is very much an ensemble show and Goodman’s six heroines selflessly share the stage during the first three-quarters of the play. The final scene belongs to Dunbar alone, however, as M’Lynn finally melts down into hysterics in the wake of Shelby’s death. But even then, her fellow cast members generously support Dunbar by subtly mirroring her emotions as they listen to M’Lynn’s lengthy soliloquy of grief.
Set sometime in the mid-1980s, the atmosphere of “Steel Magnolias” can only be described as delightfully dated. But Goodman has wisely resisted any impulse to modernize the play, choosing instead to revel in nostalgia. The set design by Spencer Potter is appropriately quaint and the costuming by Bethany Deal is a hoot. Sydnee Fullmer also deserves kudos for creative hair styling that changes throughout the play to perfectly match the performers’ evolving characterizations.
Repertory performances of “Steel Magnolias” will continue at the Caine Lyric Theater at 28 W. Center St. in Logan through Aug. 18.
Charlie Schill is a former city editor of The Herald Journal. He has directed and performed with theater groups in the United States, South Korea and Germany. Schill also served as theater critic for The Temple Daily Telegram in Temple, Texas and Pacific Stars & Stripes and Japan Times, both daily newspapers in Tokyo, Japan.