Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Sisterhood of the Salon: Theatre at the Center's Steel Magnolias Proves an Engaging Showcase of Impressive Women -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Steel Magnolias
a play by Robert Harling
directed by Linda Fortunato
Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN
Thru March 25

Without my ever having seen it, the 1991 film Steel Magnolias--starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah and Olympia Dukakis--seems like the very essence of a "chick flick."

I say this with no disdain, disparagement or valid justification for any aversion, but the truth is that's I've never sought it out.

Not shockingly, but unknown to me until recent days, the movie was adapted from a 1987 play by Robert Harling, who also wrote the screenplay. The stage version originally ran off-Broadway for nearly 3 years.

Having never previously noted a Chicago area theater company staging Steel Magnolias--at least since I started paying attention around 2000--I was curious enough to ride out to Munster with my mom for a Sunday matinee at the erstwhile Theatre at the Center (within The Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, which features nice exhibition space and a great gift shop).

And thanks largely to excellent performances from the 6-woman cast--including both old favorites and fine actresses I'd never seen--I wound up being quite solidly entertained, considerably impressed and even a good bit moved.

Set in Chinquapin, Louisiana in 1987, the play takes place entirely within a beauty salon run by Truvy (the always stellar Heidi Kettenring, who unfortunately doesn't get to sing here; I've seen her in several musicals but this isn't one).

Presumably in her 40s, Truvy has a husband and two college-aged sons we never see. Her salon is built into an addition onto her house and clearly patronized by a group of regulars, four of whom we get to know here.

Aiding Truvy is the young, new-in-town Annelle (the likable Myesha-Teara), who is hired on in the play's opening moments, on a day focused on prepping Shelby (a terrific Landree Fleming) for her wedding.

Shelby's mom, M'Lynn, is played by Cory Goodrich, who--like Kettenring--I've seen shine in many an area musical. Without giving anything more than this away, we learn early on that Shelby is diabetic, and while she and her mom bicker, the love and concern is readily apparent.

Two other, older patrons of Truvy's--though they never do get their 'dos done onstage--are the posh Clairee (Jeanne Affelder) and irascible Ouiser (Joslyn Yvonne Jones).

As with Myesha-Tiara, I've never knowingly seen these two actresses before, but along with Kettenring, Goodrich and Fleming--who I remember fondly from Seussical at Marriott Theatre--all are demonstrably good.

Certainly, there is inherent quality in Harling's script--filled, for the most part, with humor and good-natured banter more than overt poignancy or pathos--as the women talk candidly about their men, children, dogs, faith, the local high school football team and more.

The 2-act, 2+ hour play takes place over a 2-1/2 year span, so while Shelby's nuptials are initially the prime topic, her life drives much of the narrative along with her changing hairstyles.

Directed by Linda Fortunato upon an impressive set designed by Greg Pinsoneault, Steel Magnolias is ostensibly about women, and Southern women at that.

But like almost any good work of fiction--although some of the events are inspired by circumstances in author Harling's life--it's widely relatable, even if you happen to be a decidedly Northern man.

Ultimately, it's about life and love and friendship and family and good days--and good hair days--and bad days and finding a way to get through it all.

I wouldn't have attended the play if I wasn't hoping to like it--and with the actresses whose work I knew, I figured to be reasonably impressed--but not only did I enjoy Steel Magnolias onstage more than I might've expected, it somewhat sneakily rose from @@@@ to @@@@1/2 in my mind (on my @@@@@ scale) as it reached its conclusion.

Who knows how or why certain plays from the theatrical canon get selected for local productions, but upon this one ending, I posited to my mom that I think it could work quite well at several venues we attend.

Although it would be hard for it to be much better cast than it is right now in Munster.

Complemented by the opportunity to meet up with some of my own family residing in the NW Indiana hamlet, I'm glad I found the opportunity to see Steel Magnolias.

And it's probably about time to seek out the movie.

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