July 28, 2011 at 2:51 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Belles and beauticians

‘Steel Magnolias’
Through Aug. 21
Keegan Theatre at Church Street
1742 Church Street, N.W.

From left, Sheri Herren, Larissa Gallagher, Jane Petkofsky and Brianna Letourneau in Keegan Theatre’s production of ‘Steel Magnolias.’ (Photo by Jim Coates; courtesy of Keegan)

Before it was a hit film, “Steel Magnolias” won kudos and enjoyed a long and successful run as an off-Broadway play. Written by Robert Harling in response to his younger sister’s death, this drama wrapped in comedy explores solidarity in adversity and the resilience of women, particularly southern women. Keegan Theatre is now offering its own take on the popular work.

The story unfolds entirely in Truvy’s hair salon, a small town Louisiana beauty bastion inhabited exclusively by females, and while both stylists and clients frequently refer to their men who have names like Drum and Spud, the audience never actually meets them. At Truvy’s, women are able to let their hair down. In between shampoos and comb outs, they not only gossip but also share hopes and disappointments.

“Steel Magnolias’” more serious side concerns regular clients M’Lynn and daughter Shelby. The mother is justly worried about her diabetic offspring who marries young and proceeds to get pregnant against doctors’ advice. It’s a lot like a very long episode of the Atlanta-set sitcom “Designing Women” (fittingly Delta Burke was featured in Steel Magnolia’s all-star Broadway 2005 revival) with glib Southern white women dishing, bitching and commiserating. Only here someone dies.

Directed by Mark Rhea, the ensemble cast includes Sheri Herren and real life daughter Laura Herren as M’Lynn and Shelby. Linda High and Jane Petkofsky play cranky spitfire Ouiser and rich widow Clairee, respectively. As Truvy, Larissa Gallagher chats and does hair (in fact, she successfully tortures the big blonde wig that Herrin’s Shelby wears in act one into a respectable wedding up do); and Brianna Letourneau’s Annelle — Truvy’s anxious assistant — evolves markedly throughout the play’s four scenes but regrettably retains her questionable sartorial taste. She trades a frumpy polyester dress for a cowgirl getup.

There are some problems: The cast’s Louisiana accents are all over the place and the pacing of the show is inexplicably uneven. And while some of the actors have chosen to underplay their parts, others are going at it full throttle. Admirably, some of the cast are struggling to portray real characters and not simply caricatures, but given the material it’s not easy.

The play’s intimate setting is well-suited for the cozy Church Street Theater. Trena Weiss-Null’s set design isn’t the tacky beauty box one might expect, but rather a typical modest ‘80s salon with mint-green marbleized walls and black and gray stations. Similarly, costume designer Erin Nugent dresses the ladies in leggings, boxy power suits and other items totally redolent of the era.

A bona fide chick flick, the 1989 film version starring Sally Field and Julia Roberts as mother and daughter is also beloved by a lot of gay men, some of whom can irritatingly rattle off chunks of the film’s dialogue verbatim. Memorable lines include: Truvy’s “All gay men have track lighting and are name Rick, Mark or Steve,” and Ouiser’s “I’m not crazy M’Lynn. I’ve just been in a bad mood for the last 40 years!”

When “Steel Magnolias” opened in 1987 at the Lucille Lortel in Greenwich Village, theatergoers enjoyed meeting these feisty belles and their southern fried phrases, but certainly Shelby’s decision to fearlessly live life in the shadow of death’s specter must have resonated strongly with gay audiences who were around for some of the grimmest years of the AIDS crisis. More than two decades later, the play might feel a little stale, but that courageous spirit still resonates.


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