“Steel Magnolias” is one of those plays inevitably, eventually, produced by most community theaters. This is no huge surprise; if it’s done well, Robert Harling’s glimpse into the private world of six Southern women is both funny and heartbreaking. It doesn’t hurt that it offers great roles for women, both young and mature. And folks, North Fork Community Theatre’s current production, directed by Robert Horn and produced by Babette Cornine, is without a doubt done well.
All the action takes place in Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Louisiana over the course of three years in the 1980s. The play opens on Shelby’s wedding day, and Truvy, vivacious and upbeat, has just hired a newcomer to town, the sweet but shy Annelle. We are slowly introduced, one at a time, to the group of regulars preparing for the wedding: Clairee, widow of the town’s last mayor; Shelby, a bride passionate about pink, her “signature color”; Ouiser, a crotchety character who insists she’s not crazy but has just “been in a bad mood for 40 years”; and M’Lynn, a social worker and Shelby’s mom.
The offstage men in their lives are a small but distinct presence through their chatter, which is peppered with hilarious one-liners. The comedy, which evoked roars of laughter on opening night (and not just from the women), is due largely to effective writing and recognition of the truth behind the jokes. It would not be nearly as effective, however, without the actors’ solid timing and delivery.
Southern women are expected to be delicate flowers yet are revealed to be as strong as steel when necessary, hence the title. We glimpse their lives as they share beginnings, endings and the experiences of daily life — all with that aforementioned great humor.
Ms. Cornine and Mr. Horn assembled a more than capable cast, but on opening night I found some actors’ work more finely polished. I’ve no doubt that by this weekend, any unevenness will be worked out. Sometimes it just takes a few performances with an audience to find that extra magic.
Marilee Scheer, as the grumpy Ouiser, came out gangbusters at the top of the show. She did lose some of that energy as she softened, though, and her Southern accent drifted in and out. But this talented actress, a popular regular at NFCT, has yet to let us down and, with a few tweaks, her Ouiser will be perfection.
Amanda Mouzakes is adorable and perky as Shelby. She is a sweet and utterly believable Southern belle, but I would have liked to see a more layered performance. Her background is musical comedy, where she has excelled and, with more experience, Ms. Mouzakes has the makings of a fine dramatic actress.
Lisa Westfall, playing M’Lynn, knows how to approach a character. She gives us a no-nonsense, doting if ever-so-slightly cold mother who would like to continue to guide her daughter’s choices through life. Clearly an experienced, talented actress, Ms. Westfall creates the kind of layered performance that is a thrill to watch. The only caveat for me was her climactic scene. Unlike the rest of her performance, which was so truthful throughout, her rage felt too controlled; letting go completely, in a deep, primal way, would offer the release she, and we, need.
Linda Aydinian has some of the best one-liners as Clairee, and she delivers them with flawless timing and the wisdom and wry humor of a woman who has seen a lot of life and knows what, and what not, to take seriously. She has great energy and a natural presence on stage. The same is true of Catherine Maloney as Truvy. Serving as a sort of ringmaster for the group, Truvy guides both gossip and hairstyling. Ms Maloney portrays a sassy and smart entrepreneur who cares for her customers; they are truly her friends. Ms. Maloney’s energy fills the theater and is missed when she leaves the stage.
It is a pure delight to watch Grace Phelan as she evolves Annelle’s character arc from a timid mousy stranger to a more confident young woman and, finally, to a born-again Christian who prays obsessively for her friends, as they indeed have become. Ms. Phelan adapts not only her delivery, but her physicality as well, to each of her personas.
Snappily directed by Mr. Horn, the pacing is on point and the characters move organically around the confines of the beauty shop. Kudos to him for directing his cast into a tight-knit, likable ensemble with great chemistry.
Charles Scheer’s set and lighting design and Diane Peterson’s costumes combine to enhance the feel and look of the production. The hard work of the crew, the ensemble and their director transports the audience to another time and place, but one that still is authentic and relatable. And very, very funny.