One of my favorite lines from Robert Harling’s classic comedy drama, Steel Magnolias is stated by sarcastic and dour Ouiser, portrayed here by Ellen Peterson. “I do not see plays, because I can nap at home for free. And I don’t see movies ’cause they’re trash…and I don’t read books, ’cause if they’re any good, they’re gonna make ’em into a miniseries.”
This type of straight shooting and self deprecating humor is what has made Steel Magnolias thrive over the last 30 years. Steel Magnolias has been adapted so many ways from stage to screen, but what Ouiser leaves out is her unmitigated opinion about a partial true story.
Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias originated as a screen play in 1987 and is based off of real people Harling knew in Louisiana. In the popular 1989 film (which included a parade of famous actresses including Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah, and Shirley MacLaine), M’Lynn was portrayed by Sally Field and Julia Roberts was Shelby. Harling based M’Lynn on his own mother and Shelby (whose real name was Susan) on his sister.
In that same vein, who better to direct Steel Magnolias than someone native to this popular play’s southern setting? Directed with local flair by Natchitoches native Johnny Nichols, Jr, The Company Theatre presents Steel Magnolias through Sunday, February 16 at the Company Theatre in Norwell, Massachusetts. Click here for more information and tickets.
Unlike the film, the play is set entirely in Truvy’s Beauty Spot in 1980’s Louisiana. This bittersweet tale follows a group of vastly different women who find strength in each other through hardships and triumphs with a great deal of understanding, humor, and hairspray.
Director Johnny Nichols, Jr not only adds local attributes unique to the show’s setting such as the voice of local DJ Rick Terrell, but the 80s come alive with music distinctive to the era and various references such as Princess Grace, Cher, and Elizabeth Arden. Costume designer Paula Ninestein and Wig Master Ryan Barrow emphasize the era with fringe and florals highlighting each woman’s distinct personality while Truvy’s is an expansive salon that includes a boom box and a wall to wall mix of pastel floral and lace on busy wallpaper and curtains. However, what was most refreshing about this era is to look back at a time before the internet where people shared time, recipes, and hair tips in person.
Though other productions have put a daring spin on Steel Magnolias over the years, Company Theatre’s production is traditional, warm, and thrives on the growth between these primarily outspoken southern women. With her signature blond locks and a gift for gab and gossip, Stephanie Wells depicts fun loving salon owner, Truvy. As a big fan of the movie, it is hard to imagine this part for anyone other than Dolly Parton, but in a black fringe blouse and pumps, Wells puts her own spin on sweet, welcoming, and confident Truvy. Her scenes with Hannah Cunniff as mysterious and humble Annelle make for some quirky, heartwarming moments. Wearing an awkward smile, Cunniff portrays Annelle with quiet unpredictability.
Ellen Peterson’s sardonic and darkly amusing Ouiser delivers some of the most entertaining moments in the show. A bit softer than other productions but no less amusing, Peterson depicts Ouiser more dramatic than sour. Ouiser has a casual style, but costume designer Ninestein make an intriguing statement by having her also wear a distinctive string of pearls, showing Ouiser may not be quite who she seems. Her sarcastic facade rings true with the priceless line, “I’m not crazy. I’ve just been in a bad mood for forty years.”
Widow Clairee, portrayed with warmth and stylishness by Juliana Dennis, is a down to earth perfectionist with an interest in keeping up with the times while Ouiser couldn’t be bothered. With good intentions and a knowing smile, Clairee amuses herself by teasing Ouiser and their exchanges create their own spark.
However, the most compelling relationship exists between Karen Cavallo as M’Lynn and Abigail Chase as M’Lynn’s daughter Shelby. Though Sally Field depicted M’Lynn with a tough sadness, Cavallo’s M’Lynn exudes a sweet demeanor and quiet anxiousness. Cavallo is impressive navigating this complicated character. Chase as Shelby seems cast on the younger side, but exhibits growing maturity as the show progresses. It is easy to see why they are mother and daughter and not just by their remarkable resemblance. Cavallo is sensible while Shelby is impulsive and as with any mother-daughter relationship, one minute they exchange nagging barbs and the next, nurturing affection.
Rewind the clock and take a trip south to Truvy’s for Company Theatre’s Steel Magnolias at Company Theatre, 30 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts through Sunday, February 16. Click here for more information and tickets, here for details on their upcoming “Galentine’s Day” and here for more on their 2020 season.