Monday, July 15, 2013

A Modern Classic Enjoys a Solid Production with Wayward Actors’ Latest Offering

Katie Hay, Jennifer Starr Jennings, Kathy Todd Chaney, Janice Walter,
Ashley Raymer-Brown and Janet Morris in Steel Magnolias.

Steel Magnolias
Written by Robert Harling
Directed by Craig Nolan Highley

Reviewed by Brian Walker

I have to admit, this is the first time I’ve seen Steel Magnolias onstage. I’m very familiar with the film version and now understand why the play is produced so often:  It’s a really great script and a wonderful opportunity for six talented ladies to all play characters with depth, emotion and humor. It has a cast list that is unfortunately a rarity in the canon of American plays, and this one now stands out to me as one of the best, if not the best, of all female ensemble plays. The script is a beautiful story about friendship, community and loss; and it deserves to be performed into infinity as the themes are so universal and accessible to men and women alike. It really is just a great play.

The entire action takes place in Truvy’s hair salon over four scenes spanning two years and involves six Southern ladies whose lives intertwine to form a sort of family. Truvy (Jennifer Starr Tennant) owns the salon and is equally sassy and sweet. Annelle (Katie Hay) is her awkward assistant who’s just moved to town with “a story.” Clairee (Janet Morris) is the supremely confident, recently widowed mayor’s wife. Ouiser (Janice Walter) is the grumpy wealthy neighbor with a heart of gold. Annelle (Kathy Todd Chaney) is the sophisticated mental health worker. And Shelby (Ashley Raymer-Brown) is her daughter with an affinity for pink and who is severely diabetic. The characters could easily fall into stereotyped camps of archetypes, but Hurling’s script grounds each character as human beings. making them each three-dimensional and honest. 

So the most important ingredient to any production of this play must be finding six women capable of handling the material in an honest way without allowing it to turn into camp, and Mr. Highley has done a wonderful job assembling six locals who not only rise to the challenge but in many moments exceed it. The ensemble had great chemistry and overall they were successful in taking me on the journey of the story with them. Because of my relationship with the film, part of my enjoyment of their performances was seeing how they took these really classic lines and made them their own. Jennifer Starr Tennant was especially successful at this, making so many lines that I’ve only heard Dolly Parton say fresh and new and, most importantly, lending them her own signature-Jenn Starr touch. She was exciting to watch. Janet Morris was also great playing a woman much older than herself without turning it into a caricature and had some fantastic moments, most notably the famous “hit Ouiser” at the end of Act 2. Ashley Raymer-Brown was a lovely but defiant Shelby, bringing a wonderful sense of magic and youth to the ensemble. Katie Hay nailed Annelle’s awkward quiet energy. Kathy Todd Chaney was very good, particularly in her exchanges with her daughter, finding a great balance of concern and overbearingness. But special props have to be given to Janice Walter as Ouiser, because if you know Janice, you know she is so sweet and not confrontational. But when she burst out on that stage as Ouiser the first time in all of her crotchety-but-you-gotta-love-her-glory, it was so unexpected and just a delight.

Set design by Mr. Highley was simple but effective, though a bit more color would have really popped. The stage was transformed into a Southern hair salon nicely, and the placement and blocking really worked the space well. The lights (Jeff Mangum) and sound (Larry Chaney) came off seamlessly and without a hitch. I thought the songs chosen were really good and served to set the time and place.

To be fair, I did have a few minor quibbles. Opening night had a few line flubs due to nerves. There was also a touch of gratuitous “mugging” from much of the ensemble in the second act I would warn against, particularly during M’Lynn’s breakdown in the final scene. If it ain't honest, don't do it, or you run the risk of pushing too hard.

I’d say Wayward Actors’ 2013-2014 season is off to a great start with these talented ladies and their production of this wonderful script. It has heart and soul and a ton of belly laughs, and it’ll get you right in your gut in that really great way that reminds you to cherish life and the people around you.

Steel Magnolias
July 12-21
Wayward Actors
At The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY  40205

Tickets:  $16 ($11 on industry night, July 16)

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