Robert Harling’s Southern Women Bloom Boldly & Tenderly
by Lynne Stevens
Director Elizabeth Carter conveys the universality of hairstyling, focusing on six women at a cozy hair salon in a small Louisiana town. Bold Lisa Strum plays Truvy who runs the melting pot of a hair salon where women of varied races find community, gossip, and therapy.
Playwright Robert Harling’s snappy one-liners keep the scenes rolling, right up to the final heart wrenching Plunge. Occasionally, the timing eludes them, when they wait for the laugh.
“There’s no such thing as natural beauty,” Truvy instructs Annelle (energetic Alexandra Lee). Truvy’s reticent new hire absorbs the shop’s mantra.
When she meets Annelle, Truvy says, “There’s a story there.” Annelle says she’s married; but her husband’s not present; so, the curious patrons nose around to find out Annelle’s real story.
Jasmine Milan Williams plays budding bride Shelby, who acts like Little Miss Sunshine on a natural high. Shelby’s mother M’Lynn (steady Dawn L. Troupe) keeps her grounded and aware of her “condition.”
Shelby declares she would rather have “three minutes of wonderful and a lifetime of nothing special.” Their biggest conflict comes from Shelby’s health because she has Type 1 Diabetes.
Shelby’s doctor recommended that she not become pregnant. I wonder why the doctor failed to provide more details. We hear characters assert, “Diabetics have healthy babies every day.”
Troupe’s M’Lynn remains calm and unexcited. Even when she and Shelby display their mother daughter conflicts, Troupe barely raises her voice. WhenTroupe lets loose a breath-grabbing catharsis, in spite of myself, my eyes well up. Now we believe in M’Lynn’s grief.
Casting tiny Alexandra Lee as Annelle is hard to accept: she comes across as a little girl. Yet, she delivers her lines convincingly and with aplomb. When M’Lynn and Annelle speak directly to the audience, matters become a bit confusing. And the switch to accepting “life goes on” at the end fails to ring true.
Nancy Carlin’s wonderfully grumpy Ouiser delights us by being contrary. She resists Annelle’s efforts to bring her to Jesus: “Annelle, take your Bible and shove it where the sun don’t shine.” “I’m not crazy; I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!”
Clairee (playful Marcia Pizzo) must ruffle Ouiser’s feathers every day. It’s easy to torment Ouiser—the have been doing it for years.
Costume Designer Dana Rebecca Woods dresses Clairee in the most conservative 80s styles— tailored slacks and blouses with bows in tasteful beige. Clairee comments, “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”
Men are part of the story but unlike the 1989 movie, we don’t see them. We only hear M’Lynn’s husband shooting birds from the trees for Shelby’s wedding. We hear that Truvy’s husband has been glued to the TV for 15 years! The men are peripheral, while the women thrive together.
Perhaps in 1985, diabetes and pregnancy were not well understood. If the medical profession had embraced the reproductive rights of diabetics, then maternal care for women like Shelby would be better by now.
This is a comedy about strong women with universal issues to reveal, if we pay close attention.
“Steel Magnolias” by Robert Harling, directed by Elizabeth Carter, at TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley, Mountain View, California. Info: TheatreWorks.org – to July 2, 2023.
Cast: Nancy Carlin, Alexandra Lee, Marcia Pizzo, Lisa Strum, Dawn L. Troupe, and Jasmine Milan Williams.
Banner photo: Jasmine Milan Williams, Lisa Strum, & Marcia Pizzo. Photos: Kevin Berne