Not long into author Robert Harling's ensemble dramedy Steel Magnolias, the Louisiana beautician Truvy asks local socialite Clairee Belcher about the recipe for a delicacy called "cuppa cuppa cuppa," the ingredients for which are a cup of flour, a cup of sugar, and a cup of fruit cocktail. Truvy says it sounds awfully rich, and Clairee replies that it is, "so I serve it over ice cream to cut the sweetness."
That line gets a laugh, and it should, and after attending the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's new production of Steel Magnolias, it dawned on me that Clairee's dessert makes a fine analogy for the play itself. In effect, Harling's beloved, female-driven theatrical mainstay is a cup of wisecracking sitcom, a cup of unvarnished sentimentality, and a cup (perhaps a teaspoon or two less) of genuine feeling, all blended together and served over ice cream. Some may find this tale of six Southern friends and beauty-parlor regulars too sweet. But it'd be hard to deny the tastiness of the Showboat's presentation, and if the collective response during Thursday's curtain call was to be trusted, the standing, clapping, happily tearful crowd would've gratefully asked for seconds.
This is the point at which I have to admit that while I totally get the show's appeal, I've never much liked Steel Magnolias. It's the same reason I don't care for the "serious" Neil Simon of Broadway Bound or Lost in Yonkers, either. The machine-gun-like banter and relentless punchlines, with everyone sounding the same, establish the people on-stage as caricatures, and then the narratives' oppressive turns toward the mournful shame you for thinking they were caricatures in the first place. Steel Magnolias, to my eyes and ears, is Harling having his cuppa cuppa cuppa and eating it, too. He scores cheesy, ba-dum-ching! laughs and wrings tears through uncomfortably manipulative pathos, and can't stop congratulating himself for writing such supportive, down-to-earth, exemplary figures who keep saying things such as "We like being nice to each other" and "These are the dearest friends I have in this town" and "You have no idea how wonderful you are." When characters hug here, it feels redundant to me, because for the two hours plus of the show's length, Harling never stops hugging himself.
End of harangue, because I also readily concede that Harling's 1987 work is a remarkably easy play to sit through, and that some of his dialogue is truly fresh and surprising, and that he does, on occasion, know when to back off and let a touching exchange or encounter just be, and not ruin it with forced melancholy or an intrusive quip. And heaven knows he gives his acting sextet a lot to play with, which, if you're a fellow fan of stage performance, is more than enough reason to catch a production of Steel Magnolias, especially if it's as beautifully directed as the Showboat's.
One of the expository lines that I think gets commonly missed in Harling's script is Truvy's revelation that her beauty shop is actually a refurbished carport, which makes the Showboat's intimate playing area a perfect fit for the material. (Amanda Warriner's scenic design, with its air of Southern gentility, is pretty damned perfect, too, suggesting that Truvy surveyed her limited space and crafted separate nooks for a waiting area, coffee counter, and hair-drying station through sheer ingenuity.) Yet given the relative lack of opportunities for movement - especially because, of course, the women getting their hair done can't move - director Kristy Cates provides subtly dazzling choreography for this Steel Magnolias. The bustle of the sharp, no-nonsense Truvy (Miranda Barnett) and her endearingly dizzy assistant Annelle (Livvy Marcus) finds them in frequent motion, negotiating their way from one station to another with the practiced fluidity of co-workers almost telepathically aware of where the other will be at any gven time.
And when not forced into seated positions, Truvy's longtime customers/pals have no trouble merging into the beauticians' traffic patterns. The resident mother hen M'Lynn (Rebecca Bean), her diabetic daughter Shelby (Bailey Jordan Reeves), the sardonic Clairee (Jalayne Riewerts), and the continually exasperated Ouiser (Dorothy Farach) are clearly as comfortable in Truvy's parlor as they are in their own living rooms, as is marvelously indicated by Cates' deceptively nonchalant staging. She seems acutely aware of how much personal space her characters desire - or how much they're desiring to invade someone else's space - and with the possible exception of the positioning during M'Lynn's climactic lament, which was a bit too tableau-y for my tastes, there's always a solid reason for the staging. When Shelby, in the midst of having her hair styled for her wedding, suddenly stood and walked center at the start of her "pink is my signature color" routine, I got nervous, thinking Cates was making one of those "If it's a monologue, it's gotta be center stage" indulgences. I shouldn't have feared; Shelby was merely on her way to get a magazine, and promptly returned to her chair.
Cates delivers that kind of seemingly minor but hugely heartening effect all throughout Steel Magnolias, from the unexpected reveal of one character's pregnancy (a fantastically timed piece of staging) to Annelle's gleeful jaunt as she finds perhaps the funniest use ever for one of those wig-holding styrofoam heads. And I have a hunch that Cates can also be commended for creating such a smart, warm, loving atmosphere that her actors had no trouble forming a makeshift family, as their obvious affection for one another, and delight in each other's performances, were more than evident on opening night - even if they didn't always convince me that they were in the same play.
On the one hand, you had Bean, who gave such gorgeously truthful readings, and whose silent reactions were so frequently devastating, that M'Lynn never stopped feeling like a flesh-and-blood person, even when sliding in casual wisecracks. On the other, you had Riewerts and Farach, who certainly knew how to deliver jokes, but who were never in danger of coming off as real. A good half of Riewerts' dialogue was delivered face-front to the audience, and she'd only look at the character she was speaking to, with a cat-who-ate-the-canary grin, after the punchline landed and she got her laugh - an odd presentational tic that turned too much of Clairee's stage time into shtick. Farach, meanwhile, entered the play in a torrent of jarring upper-body spasms so mechanically off-putting that I didn't know if her gestures were meant to suggest Ouiser's comic apoplexy, or if the performer was suffering from some kind of unfortunate physical malady. Subsequent scenes, thankfully, indicated that Harach's introductory movements were intentional, but whenever Ouiser went maniacally off the rails, I can't pretend I ever felt comfortable.
Yet while a strong argument could certainly be made for opening-night jitters playing their part, as the production did boast more line stumbles and do-overs than it should've, Harach and Riewerts were entertaining and lovely whenever they weren't trying so hard - which is how the magnificent Reeves, Marcus, and Barnett appeared every second they were on-stage. Playing Shelby with an abashed gracefulness through which, to her visible delight, a spiky wit routinely pops out, Reeves achieves her effects with luminous simplicity, and appears to have truly thought out her character in deep and thorough ways. (When M'Lynn told the others that Shelby tended to sweat profusely and Reeves replied with an under-her-breath "Thank you, Mama," you got a full sense of Shelby's frustration and inbred politeness, as though she were actually saying, "I'll get you for that, Mama, but later, when our friends aren't around.")
Reeves, at all times, is both endearing and extremely moving, as is Marcus, who has the added benefit of being really, really funny. Annelle's is probably the most difficult character arc in Steel Magnolias to navigate: a downtrodden, eccentric basket case who morphs into an upstanding (if rather aggressively devout) Christian. The endlessly inventive Marcus, however, makes the shift convincing by suggesting that, in her flighty-sweetheart way, Annelle might always be one shampoo away from a complete nervous breakdown. Her conversation spilling out as though Annelle's words wholly bypassed her brain on the way out of her mouth, Marcus frequently pounces on dialogue with such dynamism that routine laugh lines turn into joyous explosions. (On Thursday, Annelle's building hysteria when promising that "my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair!" left me and my fellow patrons in hysterics, too.) And Marcus, here, is the rare performer who can elicit "Aw-w-w!"s from an audience without saying or doing anything remotely sentimental; her very being is inherently lovable.
Barnett's Truvy, meanwhile, serves as this group's unofficial ringleader, and you couldn't hope for a more assured or spectacular one. Perhaps the thing I most admire about Harling's play is that it truly is an ensemble piece, and depending on the production, any of its six cast members, at any time, can take charge through dint of natural presence and talent. With all due respect to her gifted co-stars, I'm not sure my focus ever completely left Barnett whenever Truvy was on-stage. She didn't even have to do anything. Barnett was simply alert and aware and constantly in the moment, and her physicality and readings were so controlled yet so unfussy - and so freaking hilarious - that it didn't at all seem like she was taking over the show, intentionally or otherwise; the show just seemed to naturally gravitate toward her. (Dressed in the most apt of designer Emily Mae Billington's superb costumes, Truvy struck an accidental pose in her leopard-print blouse and black stretch pants and stated, "It takes some effort to look like this," but Barnett is so naturally radiant that I don't think any of us believed it for a second.)
Oh, and not for nothing, but based on Shelby's wedding 'do, Barnett can also style a mean head of hair, and one of the great treats of the Clinton Showboat's Steel Magnolias was how believable its beauty-parlor environment was. Hair was styled and (unless it was just first-rate stage trickery) a working salon dryer chair was employed, and when, on Thursday, the initial turning on of a faucet resulted in an unexpected, volcanic spray that landed on half the stage, Barnett and Marcus leaped into action. Truvy and Annelle, with business-like efficiency, quickly grabbed some paper towels and cleaned up the mess, and the conversation of the others, and the collective cheer, wasn't affected in the slightest. I've got a female friend who's getting married soon. If, after its summer season ends, the Showboat can be convinced to stay open as a year-'round salon, and Barnett and Marcus are in its employ, I promise I'll get my friend to make an appointment.
Steel Magnolias runs at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (311 Riverview Drive, Clinton) through August 2, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)242-6760 or visiting ClintonShowboat.org.