Arc Theatre brings classic play about Southern women
As a child growing up in Texas I remember going with my mother to her beauty parlor every Wednesday so she could have her beehive hairdo repaired. To this day when I smell Aquanet Hairspray memories of my youth come flooding back (I would not be surprised if playwright Robert Harling did not experience the same).
The gossip was never mean-spirited, but always entertaining. These “steel magnolias” had such southern wit and warmth for one another; much like the characters in Robert Harling’s 1987 heartwarming play Steel Magnolias.
Story of Steel Magnolias
So what makes a woman a steel magnolia? If we examine the magnolia it is wonderfully pungent, white on the tree but brown after picked, and grows in abundance in the Deep South. Magnolia trees are also deeply rooted in the ground. Southern woman appear fragile on the surface but inside they are forged of rare steel which is a combination of heart, resilience and spirit; they may be crying inside but on their faces they will have a big, warm smile as they invite you in to their homes for pecan pie.
Steel Magnolias is a magnificently well written and touching story set in Chiquapin, Lousiana about a young and beautiful girl, Shelby (strongly and believably played by Brookelyn Hebert) who has come to Truvy’s beauty salon to get her hair done for her wedding and catch up on all of the gossip. Truvy (played with warmth and sass by Lucy Sandy) has just hired a new assistant, Annelle (played nicely by Nikkia Tyler) to help her around the salon.
One of the wealthier town patrons, Clairee (in a genuine and touching performance by Nicholia Q. Aguirre) soon comes in to also have her hair done and catch up on the latest gossip. She is next followed by Shebly’s mother, M’Lynn (a powerhouse performance by Natalie Sallee that will reduce you to tears). Rounding out the cast is the town grouch, Ouiser (played with disdain by a tad too young Meg Elliott).
Amidst the gossip and Auqanet (which was lacking in this production along with the big hair and heavy makeup that southern woman are famous for) Shelby has a diabetic fit and we see the foreshadowing of what is to become a tragic event down the road which will test the strength of these ladies. Steel Magnolias is about love, loss and the steely southern - Scarlett O’Hara-determination to go on.
I first saw this play when it premiered in 1987 at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas and, ever sense it has left an imprint on me. I was looking forward to seeing Arc Theatre’s production of it and how it would play with a Chicago director and cast in an intimate space.
I will begin by saying that director and Artistic Director of Arc Theatre, Mark Boergers has assembled a strong ensemble of fine actresses who are very much in synch with one another (although a couple are a tad too young for the roles as written). They manage the emotional landscape of Harling’s comic drama beautifully and, at the end, I was moved to tears.
Dialect Coaching Needed
Being southern myself I am a tough judge when it comes to non-southern actors playing southern characters;. I did not believe that most of the characters were from Louisiana—I spent much of my childhood in New Orleans’ French Quarter. I fault the director in not hiring a dialect/diction coach to work with the ladies. Their dialects were inconsistent. With the exception of Brookelyn Hebert, whom I did believe was from Louisiana because of her southern cadence, the diction mumbled.
Harling’s humor is akin to that of a southern Noel Coward, where the tempos are quick, you must set up the laugh lines correctly, and drive the energy to the ends of the sentences. In this production, they lost about 50% of the laughs. And, the voices were sometimes inaudible due the long expanse of the set, especially at the ends of sentences which were often dropped.
That said, this talented cast did capture and deliver the heart of Harling’s play in an honest, emotional and deeply touching way, which is a strong testament unto itself. This is a very tricky play to pull and requires great skill in direction and acting.
I had a wonderful evening watching this lovely group of ladies perform a play that I have not seen since it first premiered. It is worth a trip to Evanston to drop in at Truvy’s Hair Salon to catch up on the latest gossip, laugh a little, cry a lot and marvel at the emotional strength of these steel magnolias.
Photos: Emily Schwartz
January 21 – February 12, 2017
Thursdays, Friday’s and Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 3:00pm