Steel Magnolias

The women in City Theatre's staging carry one another as their characters do

Arts Review

Steel Magnolias

City Theatre, 3823-D Airport, 524-2870

Through Dec. 19

Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

It appears categorically impossible to present a performance of Steel Magnolias without leaving the audience in tears by the end. It's almost worthwhile to stage an alternative production set in the 1780s, featuring masked, male actors in drag with German accents, just to see if that holds true.

Fortunately, City Theatre has taken a more traditional approach with its production of Robert Harling's now-classic play about six quirky Southern women who draw strength from one another to survive life's ups and downs. In case you're one of the three people who missed the 1989 film adaptation with Julia Roberts and Sally Field, the entire play takes place in a small-town Louisiana beauty parlor, where these women gather to celebrate life's passages: weddings, births, sicknesses, and deaths.

Given the avalanche of literary and cinematic works celebrating Southern women's strength and friendship that have appeared since Steel Magnolias, it's easy to dismiss this sort of play as just one more entry in a tried-and-true subgenre. Steel Magnolias is still the gold standard, however. The dialog is witty and often hilarious; the characters are charming. The storyline heads for tragedy like a freight train, but it is touching and beautiful along the way. The events take place more than 20 years ago, but the story has not lost its power in that time. By the end, it's easy to feel as though it's your family who has suffered loss – and your friends who have surrounded you with comfort.

Director Barry Pineo, who is also a longtime writer for the Chronicle's Arts section, has introduced some interesting ideas in the staging. Between scenes, the actors dress and prepare onstage, in full view, in what feels like a curious but harmless experiment. The multiple levels of the set are a strong choice, although overall the scenery seems thrown together and low on the company's priority list. (There is no set designer listed, which might be why.)

The positive chemistry between cast members is obvious. Annie Dragoo as M'Lynn and Ellen Massey as Clairee have the strongest grasp of the rhythms and inner workings of their characters. Not everyone in the cast has mastered the art of the throwaway line – sometimes humor needs to be tossed off rather than highlighted and pointed at – but as a group they carry the story well. Ultimately, they carry each other through the evening, just like the characters they play.

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Steel Magnolias, City Theatre, Robert Harling, Barry Pineo, Annie Dragoo, Ellen Massey

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