A warm-hearted tale of female friendship is served up in eccentric southern style in Central Alberta Theatre’s Steel Magnolias, which opened on Friday at City Centre Stage in downtown Red Deer.
There’s plenty of helmet hair, big-shouldered dresses and dotty older women making remarks such as: “I’m an old Southern woman and we’re supposed to wear funny looking hats and ugly clothes and grow vegetables in the dirt.”
The town’s rich curmudgeon, Ouiser, goes on to state: “I don’t know why. I don’t make the rules!”
The “rules” were largely set by southern playwright Robert Harling, who with Steel Magnolias shaped the world’s impressions of what women from Louisiana look and sound like.
His laugh-cry dramedy about three years in the lives of a group of close-knit friends who regularly meet at Truvy’s beauty salon was turned into a popular all-star 1989 movie with Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, et al, and spawned stage productions across the globe, including Japan, Sweden and Ireland.
The play became universally beloved because its characters and story ring true. And this Central Alberta Theatre production, while running on the frozen Prairie, some 4,000 km north of Louisiana, is no exception.
CAT’s version of Steel Magnolias, directed by Albertus Koett, is very moving and offers a generous sprinkling of laugh-out-loud moments — such as when Truvy says, “The only thing that separates us from animals is our ability to accessorize.”
Or when the irascible Ouiser cracks: “I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!”
The well-paced production banks on good performances from local actors who know the meaning of being part of an ensemble cast.
There is no upstaging here.
Every performance is on the same wave-length, and we believe in the characters’ inter-relationships.
The action starts with Shelby (Jennifer Barritt) dropping in to have Truvy (Trina Penner) do her hair on her wedding day.
Their chatter is regularly interrupted by off-stage gun shot blasts, courtesy of Shelby’s wacky father, who is trying to scare birds out of the trees in readiness for the reception.
Shelby notices a new hairdresser, Annelle (Tori Grebinski) who just got hired, despite a mysterious past she doesn’t want to talk about.
The audience is soon introduced to Shelby’s overprotective and somewhat controlling mother M’Lynn (Angel Paulsen), the good-natured widow of the town’s late mayor, Clairee (Beryl Starke), and the community’s resident negative nelly, Ouiser (Vicki Dykes).
The actors pull off the warts-and-all characters who weather life’s triumphs and tragedies by sticking together and drawing strength from friendship.
My quibble is they need to speak slower than at Wednesday’s dress rehearsal to convey the lazy Louisiana drawl and make every line understandable to an audience not used to Southern accents.
Particular standouts from the talented cast are Penner, for capturing Truvy’s dual qualities of warm informality and wry world-weariness, and Paulsen, for hitting all the right emotions — especially in the final scene, which, if you have children and are not made of stone, will likely make you cry.
Part of this play’s success is based on wish fulfilment.
A lot of us overly-busy people probably wish we had an ever-present, always supportive group of friends waiting for us in some mythical hair salon, somewhere, to dispense a group hug and instant validation every time we needed it. Women, especially, need to make time for their girlfriends — and going to see Steel Magnolias would be an entirely appropriate girls’ night out.
Despite the play’s chick-flick associations, its humour might also appeal to some husbands.
Audience members will enjoy the trip back to the 1980s, courtesy of costumers Marj Craig and Darlene McGill and set designer Ken Shaw. Extra kudos go to The Academy of Professional Hair Design for lending CAT old salon equipment, training the actors on hair dressing techniques, and volunteering to do their hair and makeup.
The play continues to Nov. 16.