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Steel Magnolias
by Robert Harling
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
November 30, 2017

Sarah Gene Dowling, Eileen Engel, Andra Harkins, Alison Linderer, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production is of a well-known play that I, and I assume many others, have previously only seen in its even more well-known 1989 film version. On stage, Steel Magnolias is similar to the film in that it serves as an excellent showcase for a strong cast of women, only it’s notably different in structure and somewhat in focus. It’s a character study, essentially, not just of people but of a time and place as well.

Unlike the film that “opens up” the story and features some of the characters only talked about in the play, the stage version has an all-female cast and takes place in only one location, the small-town Louisiana beauty shop owned by personable stylist Truvy Jones (Sarah Gene Dowling). The play starts out as Truvy is hiring a new employee, the initially shy and guarded Annelle (Alison Linderer), and then the story unfolds in four scenes spanning a two-year period from April 1987 to November 1989. Over the course of the story, we meet several of the “regulars” in Truvy’s shop, learning about their characters and the atmosphere and traditions of the town in which they live and the people who populate their lives, even though we don’t actually meet anyone except for the six main characters. There’s the lovably cranky Ouiser (Andra Harkins) and her old friend, Clairee (Liz Mischel), who is the widow of the town’s former mayor and who shares a snarky but affectionate friendship with Ouiser. There’s also M’Lynn (Jenni Ryan), a local social worker and overworked mother whose eldest child Shelby (Eileen Engel) is preparing to get married. The story, while featuring all of the characters well, soon focuses primarily on M’Lynn and Shelby’s story, as we learn of Shelby’s desire to have children despite her serious health concerns, and M’Lynn’s struggle to accept her adult child’s decisions even when she doesn’t think they are wise. It’s a story full of character moments, lots of humor and stories of life in this small Southern town, as well as some poignant and even heartbreaking moments of drama. For the most part, though, even with the intense emotional moments, the overall tone is more comic than tragic, and the overall message seems to be one of hope through the up and down moments of life.

The casting here is strong, with all the performers suiting their roles well. Dowling gives a solid performance as the kind, dependable Truvy, and Linderer is especially impressive as the character who undergoes the most change in the play, the shy, then secretive, then fun-loving, then devout Annelle. Mischel and Harkins lend excellent support as the snarky but loving long-time friends Clairee and Ouiser, and Ryan and Engel portray a believable, poignant mother-daughter relationship as the concerned M’Lynn and the sometimes frustrating upbeat Shelby. The interplay between all six performers is strong, as well, which is essential to this play that depends largely on ensemble chemistry for its humor and its drama. The 1980’s look and atmosphere is well-maintained as well by means of Josh Smith’s detailed unit set, and the colorful, period-specific costumes by Engel and director Gary F. Bell. Tyler Duenow’s lighting also contributes well to the overall atmosphere of this production.

This is a story about women and their relationships, as friends, mothers, daughters, and neighbors. It’s also a specifically Southern play, with strong dialogue and a well-realized setting and tone. It’s essentially the same story as the 1989 film, but the structure makes some of the story elements play a little differently, and the overall tone is more intimate. It’s another memorable show from Stray Dog Theatre.

Alison Linderer, Liz Mischel, Andra Harkins, Eileen Engel
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Steel Magnolias at Tower Grove Abbey until December 16, 2017.

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