Steel Magnolias

Thanks to an ensemble of fine actresses, Austin Playhouse's new production of Steel Magnolias is a breath of fresh Louisiana air

Arts Review

Steel Magnolias

Austin Playhouse, through May 6

Running Time: 2 hr, 20 min

Y'all are familiar with Steel Magnolias, that Hollywood fave that set the standard for cinematic depictions of Southern sisterhood. It involves six headstrong women sitting in chairs and shedding more than hair at the local gossip mill, Truvy's Beauty Salon. They develop a kinship through the moral support they provide one another during a wedding and a tragedy, all while whipping out witty one-liners with their elongated vowels, laughing and suffering all together. Multitudes of women have indulged in cinema therapy with this chick flick, holding tissue boxes to their chests while its romantic schmaltz plays out and some even reciting the lines verbatim. I went to Austin Playhouse's revival of the original play to note the changes in the stage to screen crossover, although having seen the movie only once, my notes are restricted to the basics.

In the play, the only actors are women (in other words, no Dylan McDermott eye candy), there is only one setting, and there is no Dolly Parton. In fact, the film version would not have been half the success it was had it not been for the all-star cast. Here, with the stage packed with estrogen, it's no wonder the ratio of women to men in the audience is so imbalanced.

It's been 20 years since Robert Harling's play made its off-Broadway debut, and enough time has passed for dust to settle on the motion picture, too. Set in a retro Eighties era when it used to be popular to get your "colors done" and when Southern hair featured awful, big helmet cuts like Loni Anderson's, Austin Playhouse's new production of Steel Magnolias is a breath of fresh Louisiana air.

The six gals in this production parody themselves in ways that rely on gender types as well as criticize them, puffing up their emotions to be as big and unyielding as their hair. The barely recognizable Mary Agen Cox plays Truvy and makes her more matronly (in the best, warmest, and sassiest ways) than her large-breasted movie-star counterpart. I'd be more likely to trust her with my secrets than my hair, which I couldn't say the same for with Ms. Parton. Molly Karrasch plays Truvy's new assistant, who lost her husband and later joins a church. She plays the role the way it always would have been played, with the right amount of intended beguilement.

The other young woman of the group, Rebecca Carton, plays the most difficult role: Shelby, a character who is still maturing in her efforts to be as brazen as her mother and her older peers. She has a hypoglycemic episode (a more realistic and nonconvulsive one in this play) and has to persuade her mother that her diabetes won't hinder her having a child. Though she's likable as Shelby, Carton has trouble mustering the mountain of charm the role demands so that when we reach the end, we also reach for a tissue. That finally happens in the scene when M'Lynn, Shelby's mother, breaks her usual decorum in a dramatic seizure of loss and mourning – another heart-wrenching performance by Babs George. Bernadette Nason and Janet Hurley Kimlicko, as Clairee and Ouiser, the two funniest battle-axes, shatter the moment with their comedy. There's not a twinge of uneasiness among this ensemble, just a comfortable and compassionate camaraderie. In the end, Truvy sums it up by saying, "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion." For these Southern belles, this sentiment rings true.

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