By Sharon Falduto; photos by Jordan Running
Iowa City – My friend invited me to Steel Magnolias. She loves the movie; she’s seen it as least 25 times. I saw it once and so long ago that I have only a vague recollection that maybe Julia Roberts was in it.
The play is more intimate than the movie, of course, by its very nature. It takes place on one set, a beautifully appointed beauty parlor. The focus of the play is on its six women, without any distractions from menfolk. Written by Robert Harling as a way of dealing with his emotions after the early death of his sister, it’s somewhat ironic that one of the most iconic ensemble women pieces of recent memory was written by a man, but the 25 year old script doesn’t feel dated at all. After all, we still feel love, and hope, and anger at loss.
Rich Riggleman’s set is awesome—it looks just like the beauty parlor from my hometown, with the tiled floor, the black bonnet hair dryers, and even a working sink. The sink helped provide one of the first gut busting laughs of the show. Classic hairstyle posters decorate the walls, as well a poster bearing the slogan of the beauty shop owner: “There’s no such thing as natural beauty.”
Carole Martin plays Truvy, the beautician with a heart of gold who keeps the ladies’ hair styles and hearts in line. As the show starts she has hired Annelle, a lost soul whom she is practically ready to adopt, and she’s atwitter because romance is in the air as young Shelby is getting married that day. Carole’s soft Southern drawl is the first thing we hear, immediately putting the audience in mind of the show’s Louisiana setting. She’s conducting an interview with the doe-eyed Annelle, played by Valerie Mozena. Annelle is new in town and obviously has a story to tell, a story Truvy is dying to hear but is too polite to ask about, at least at first. The opening scene establishes Truvy as mother hen and Annelle as her latest project.
It was a treat to watch Valerie’s Annelle mature throughout the show, starting with her wide eyed fear of failure, through a more confident phase marked by brighter makeup and garish earrings, until she settles into a more pious, prayerful repose. Ellen Stevenson plays Miss Clairee, the town matriarch, with a regal air and the conviction that she must know everything at all times. Miss Clairee is a force of nature and Ellen has no problem marshalling that force.
Lois Crowley’s Ouiser, the town curmudgeon, has the best lines in the show—one woman’s husband is “such a gentleman—I bet he takes the dishes out of the sink before he pees in it.” Nearly everything she says is a one-liner, which, unfortunately, felt somewhat less than organic at times. Nonetheless, every time she opened her mouth the audience laughed at her acerbic wit.
The true heart of the show is the mother-daughter bond between Kristen Schneider’s M’Lynn and Noel VanDenBosch’s Shelby. The show begins on Shelby’s wedding day as the ladies are getting their hair set, and we see the tension and the love between these two immediately. Noel’s Shelby is a strong, independent young woman—not afraid to tell her Mama that she’ll wear baby’s breath up her nose for her wedding if she wants to, by God—but when she sinks into a coma-like state brought on by her diabetes, her mama immediately stops the fighting and snaps into mother bear mode, giving her juice as the ladies fuss around looking for candy. Noel’s valley of vulnerability in between her peaks of spunkiness endears us to her character.
Kristen Schneider’s M’Lynn bears the weight of the show. Her daughter Shelby has decided to ignore medical advice and get pregnant, which proves to be a catastrophic decision for her health, if not for her romantic heart. Kristin shows fierce love as she recounts the tale of sitting by Shelby’s side in a diabetic coma, watching her slip away—her voice doesn’t crack, but the raw emotion is there in her voice and her stance. Her sadness, her anger, even her laughter are all completely believable emotions as we watch her rage against the unfairness of it all. It would take a person with a stronger reserve than mine to remain dry eyed during the final scene of the show.
Director Scott Strode elicited powerful performances from these women. They huddled in a bunch when the scene demanded closeness, but in a way that felt natural, not crowded. Each actress knew her character well enough to inhabit that woman even when the spotlight wasn’t on her. Each woman was able to do some business in keeping with her character without drawing attention from the main focus of the scene.
Truvy’s beauty shop is the home where the heart is, the kind of place we would all love to be able to visit weekly to catch up with our girlfriends and gossip. ICCT’s production of “Steel Magnolias” lets us live in that world of colorful characters and lifelong friends for a couple of hours. The show is a great exercise for your emotions, with a strong cast of some of Iowa City’s finest women. Please plan a visit to the fairgrounds next weekend to check it out.
The show runs through October 28, with shows Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16, $13 seniors and students, and $8 children. Visit the ICCT website for further details.