As Ouiser Boudreaux, the easily agitated Southern matriarch with the permanently fixed scowl and "more money than God," Dee Canfield enters the Green Room Theatre's production of Steel Magnolias as though shot through a cannon.
Bursting through the door of the play's beauty-shop setting, the performer arrives, nearly half an hour into the production, in a state of glorious apoplexy, railing against the perceived rudeness of her character's neighbor and speaking - or rather, barking - twice as loud as anyone else on stage. Too old (around 65) and too set in her ways to give a damn what anyone thinks of her, Ouiser delivers her opening rant with unbridled, startling chutzpah, and all throughout playwright Robert Harling's comic melodrama, Canfield offers readings and reactions so forceful that you're a little taken aback; she makes you laugh, but your laughter generally comes after a half-second's pause and a sharp intake of breath. (It's hard to believe this much explosive personality can fit inside one person.)
With her portrayal accented by an amusingly uncooperative head of hair that, like its owner, seems to be flying in eight directions at once, Canfield is curt, hilarious, and, in the play's final scene, rather emotionally devastating. She also proves to be incredibly necessary, because despite much fine work by her Steel Magnolias co-stars, she shakes up Harling's pleasantly safe sit-com rhythms in odd, unconventional ways, and this much-beloved play, to my mind, needs as much unpredictable sass as it can get.
In the 73 years since Claire Boothe Luce's The Women debuted, no ensemble comedy with an all-female cast has enjoyed the popular success of Steel Magnolias, so I always feel like a bit of a jerk for admitting that I don't particularly care for it. Set in Chinquapin, Louisiana - and, for director Tristan Layne Tapscott's production, kept in its original, mid-to-late-'80s time period - Harling's piece covers two-and-a-half years in the lives of six lifelong friends, who meet regularly for companionship and gossip in the local beauty parlor. Although there are random through-lines of plot, mostly involving the relationship between mental-health-care administrator M'Lynn Eatenton (played here by Angela Elliott) and her diabetic daughter, Shelby (Colleen Winters), Steel Magnolias is less story-driven than character-driven... which wouldn't be frustrating to me if the show were more character-driven than punchline-driven.
Harling does write good, bitchy one-liners, and 1989's film adaptation has made some of them so frequently quoted that they're now permanently ensconced in the public lexicon. (The term of endearment "I love you more than my luggage" was even heard in the 2006 movie Shock to the System.) I'll argue, though, that Harling's script is too quotable. The beautician, Truvy (Pamela Crouch here), seems to get the lion's share of ba-dum-ching! gags - sample: "There's so much static electricity in here, I pick up everything except boys and money" - but even the women's conversations are top-heavy with such forced, synthetic "wit" that I rarely get the sense that I'm hearing actual people talk in Steel Magnolias so much as one (overly) clever playwright. Listening to the relentless bantering of Harling's sextet, with characters continually lobbing verbal softballs for others hit out of the park, is oftentimes like a night spent with six Southern competitors on Last Comic Standing.
Harling appears on much firmer ground at the rare times when his characters aren't cracking wise; several exchanges between M'Lynn and Shelby are graced with actual feeling. But even after the play's events take a tragic turn, the dialogue remains over-explicit. When, in the climactic minutes, Truvy states, "laughter through tears is my favorite emotion," the moment is bothersome not just because laughter through tears, of course, isn't an emotion, but because the playwright is ostensibly patting himself on the back for providing this funny/sad catharsis; the line appears designed to get audiences thinking "...and that's just what you've given us, Mr. Harling!" Steel Magnolias' final sequence would be more moving if it didn't feel like Harling was also congratulating himself for creating figures of such salt-of-the-earth splendor. When M'Lynn tells her friends, "You have no idea how wonderful you are," is that the character's voice we're hearing, or the playwright's?
You have to hand it to the Green Room's cast, though, because at least they're enacting Harling's mouthpieces with commendable tact, humor, and commitment, and are frequently more naturally funny and touching than their characters are. Kelly Lohrenz, who gave a topnotch performance in the Harrison Hilltop Theatre's fall production of Independence, lends lovely shadings of eccentricity and quiet melancholy to her beautician, Annelle - frequently tight-lipped during the others' discussions, there seems to be an entirely different play running in Annelle's head - and Crouch plays her quip-ready mentor with sprightly, nimble assurance. (She also all but steals the play's second scene with her fantastically tacky Christmas blouse.) Lisa Kahn, her gently soothing rhythms and sweetheart smile providing a blessed calm, is incredibly endearing as the sixtysomething smart-ass, Clairee, while Winters gives us a simple, though not simplistic, portrait of a young woman striving to be cheery under less-than-cheerful circumstances; Winters' honesty and open-heartedness in the role is truly affecting.
And Elliott, who smartly tosses off her laugh lines with nonchalant matter-of-factness (and still scores her laughs), speaks to us more plainly, and more directly, than Harling's script ever does. M'Lynn's fears and deep reserves of love are clear through Elliott's subtlest changes in expression and timbre, and her climactic monologue is overwhelming for being so underplayed; this sensational actress shows you that M'Lynn is falling apart through her resolute determination to not fall apart. (On Friday, more than a few audience members were in tears.) I'm not a Steel Magnolias fan, but I wouldn't have missed the chance to watch Elliott, Canfield, and their winning co-stars in action; at their best, they're able to turn Harling's jokes into character, and his ersatz emotion into the genuine article.
For tickets and information, call (563)650-2396 or visit TheGreenRoomTheatre.com.