‘Steel Magnolias’ was an instant hit when it was first produced in New York in 1987. It ran for 3 years Off Broadway, was made into a film in 1989 winning Julie Roberts an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for her role as Shelby.
Its popularity and success derives, in part, from its laugh-out-loud dialogue. It is full of pithy observations about the women’s menfolk, their own personalities, community and life in general. But it is also a presentation of female friendship and mutual compassion. In the safe confines of a small town American hairdresser’s salon, the six women can say what they like. Here their lives – romantic, domestic, conflicted – can be shared, assessed, discussed without fear of judgement or hostility.
Wellington Theatre Company’s production sets the right visual tone for the audience from the moment they enter the Arts Centre. Truvy’s salon is presented with commendable authenticity – down to the working taps and basins and period driers. The women come here to gossip, gently bicker and air their grievances and concerns. It is also where their feuds and romances, lives and deaths can be shared – and here the limits of the Arts Centre stage are helpful.
The play demands strong and completely believable performances from each of the six actors. Director Rachel Buttell has experienced, able actors to work with and the sense of realism and avoidance of overstatement and cliche she has established is striking. The writer’s essential purpose in conveying characters we recognise and reactions we find credible is maintained. The pace is measured and even, allowing the witty observations and caustic humour to register. Only when the play demands a profound expression of grief does the emotional temperature rise – and it is all the more effective for coming almost as a surprise.
Dawn Morton’s Annelle is, at first, earnest, unsure and awkward as Truvy’s new assistant but shows the character’s growing confidence in each successive scene. Annelle’s sincerity in offering the comfort of her faith to M’Lynn, grappling with grief after the death of her daughter, is well-observed as is the way she manages to busy herself within the confines of the salon. Annelle remains slightly outside the intimacy of the women’s shared knowledge and experience, a quality that the actor reveals.
Charlie Hughes as Truvy has all the physical qualities and mannerisms that the role demands. She is warm-hearted – she says “I have a strict policy that no one cries alone in my presence” – and non-judgemental. As salon owner she is smart, sassy and busily resilient, setting the tone for her customers and, whilst getting on with the business of hair and nails, allowing them the space to express their views. This is an entirely credible performance – the best this actor has delivered with the company – and one which is important in establishing the atmosphere of the salon.
As Shelby, Hannah Green is very obviously composed and relaxed. Is that because she is a beauty therapist herself? Despite being a vision-in-pink Barbie-type, Shelby has a profoundly pragmatic attitude to life. She simply gets on with it, has no illusions and romantic fantasies and a stubborn resilience, even when her own life is threatened. These qualities are conveyed in the actor’s portrayal of Shelby’s understated manner and sharp analysis of her own situation as someone whose life is seriously affected by diabetes. When acknowledging the risks of becoming pregnant she says “I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a life-time of nothing special.” But it is in her relationship with her mother, M’Lynn, that the performance is at its strongest. The script presents Shelby and M’Lynn as a bickering duo whose mutual knowledge and understanding allows them to anticipate one another’s responses and have an answer to each of them.
Sarah Washington as M’Lynn is Shelby’s equal – tolerant, stoical and realistic but at the same time, an anxious mother. When Shelby announces her pregnancy M’Lynn expresses her controlled response with a simple “Congratulations”, her concern for her daughter’s wellbeing carefully disguised as disgruntlement. Explaining her decision to donate one of her own kidneys to save her daughter’s life she says, “Most mothers only get the chance to give their child life once. I get a chance to do it twice”, thereby deflecting sentiment and simply underlining her maternal bond. Her powerful expression of anguish at the end of Act 2 is all the more moving for coming after the measured rationality and forbearance shown in earlier scenes.
Lesley Darlow’s Clairee presents the community’s grande dame as a woman of caustic wit and clear-eyed composure but it is her relationship with the volatile and contrasting figure of Ouiser, played by the effortlessly convincing Mary Lewis in yet another incarnation – this time as the town’s acerbic curmudgeon – that is the key to Clairee’s role. Here are two women deeply embedded in their community, who have shared lives and common experiences but their reactions to them are as different as they can be – Clairee reflective and Ouiser reactive. Maybe more could be made of their close relationship to add a balance to that of Shelby and M’Lynn but the audience is undoubtedly aware of their bond – especially when Clairee uses Ouiser to diffuse the heightened emotion of M’Lynn’s emotional outburst in the closing scene.
The thirty years since its first performance may have seen dramatic changes in the political and social landscape of the US but the play draws on aspects of human interaction which, thankfully, endure. Audiences will undoubtedly enjoy this production. They will laugh – a lot – and maybe recognise something profoundly meaningful in the women’s responses to their situations, maybe even similar to their own. In observing attachments and loyalty that are deep and heart-warming, audiences may well feel just a little better about life when they leave the theatre; they may also take away one or more of the eminently memorable lines.
Well done Wellington Theatre Company. Another fine production that deserves full houses.
‘Steel Magnolias’ is at The Arts Centre, Eight Acre Lane, Wellington from Wednesday 5 April to Saturday 8 April at 7.30pm and on Saturday 8 April at 2.30pm. Tickets are available online from www.ticketsource.co.uk/wellingtonartscentre, by phone on 0844 997 9000, by post from The WAA Box Office, PO Box 121, Wellington TA21 1BW and from Odette’s Tearoom, 27 High Street, Wellington.