Review: Steel Magnolias

City Theatre finds the Southern comfort in this tear-jerking dramedy

(l-r) Jennifer Gonzalez, Natalie L'Amoreaux, Judith Laird, Tracy Hurd, Angelina Castillo, and Terri Bennett in City Theatre's Steel Magnolias (Photo by Andy Berkovsky)

Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias, currently being staged by the City Theatre, is a mani-pedi of a play set exclusively in Truvy's Beauty Shop in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana. The dramedy premiered off-Broadway in 1987 – the time when the play takes place – and was soon turned into a star-studded film on regular rotation on the Lifetime channel.

Truvy's place of business is a woman's world where men are mentioned but dare not tread and drawling dialogue revolves around local gossip, recipe exchanges, and Shelby. Shelby (Natalie L'Amoreaux) is an endearing, headstrong young woman whose diabetes and disappointing marriage lead to personal setbacks, medical complications, and tough love doled out by her ever-vigilant mother, M'Lynn (Tracy Hurd), who puts on a brave face when dealing with her daughter's fragility.

The play also features abundantly lovable salon owner Truvy (Jennifer Gonzalez), her born-again assistant Annelle (Angelina Castillo), and a duo of devoted locals – the charming and affable Clairee (Terri Bennett) and cantankerous Ouiser (Judith Laird) – who come in for a wash and a rinse but stay to dish, offer astute observations about life and love, and deliver some of Steel Magnolias' best dialogue. Throughout the play, these women are emotionally invested in Shelby's pain and pleasure and each other, which invites us to do the same.

What makes this play so entertaining is that the script is filled with clever, country-fried witticisms and hilarious, rapid-fire one-liners amidst all the heartbreak. When delivered well – which it is most of the time in this intimate production under Andy Berkovsky's velvet-gloved direction – each line hits home and each character's Deep South gentility and inner strength shine through. So does their authenticity, the result of the hard work invested by these talented actors. Castillo's Annelle and Bennett's Clairee are particularly well-defined and multidimensional creations.

And yet, when L'Amoreaux enters the room as Shelby, the play seems to downshift to where the comedy strikes a better, more theatrical balance with the drama. It is not so much Shelby's diabetes as L'Amoreaux's organic effervescence and soft-spoken approach to the character that generate a stronger display of everyone else's affection toward Shelby. Only Hurd has trouble riding that wave. She works so hard – too hard, really – at putting on M'Lynn's brave face and doling out the aforementioned tough love that the character's adoration for her daughter, which is so central to the storytelling, never surfaces.

Hurd's performance is not helped by one of the worst big-hair wigs ever created, second only to the one adorning Gonzalez, which nearly turn both M'Lynn and Truvy into caricatures. Surely this must be the result of a budgetary constraint rather than a creative choice by Michelle Malia. It is not until the emotion-filled final scene that Hurd leans into the brilliant monologue she is handed, bravely gives into the sentiment of the moment, and, wig be damned, flat-out crushes it.

Surrounding the actors at City Theatre's temporary performance space is Berkovsky's makeshift scenic design that does them no favors. The assorted artifacts and mismatched pieces and parts of furniture are enough to create a semblance of a beauty shop, but walls made of curtains and stand-alone set-pieces don't come close to the kind of lovingly constructed refuge Truvy would have created for her community of friends.

Despite these few shortcomings, there's plenty of Southern comfort to be found in this production, along with a steady supply of well-earned laughs and tears.

City Theatre's Steel Magnolias

Genesis Fellowship Hall, 1507 Wilshire, 512/470-1100
Through March 26
Run time: 2 hrs., 15 mins.

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