By Dale King
Steel Magnolias is a fact-based story focusing on women, their inner fortitude, outward traits and inner abilities to handle humor, tragedy and all of life’s glitches, big and small. It focuses on a group of lady friends in a small Louisiana town who are not exactly Southern belles, but they sure know how to have a good time.
The play, by Robert Harling and based on a true heartbreaking incident within his own family, is playing through May 16 at the Delray Beach Playhouse.
Veteran Delray artistic stage boss Randolph DelLago directs this slice-of-many-lives feature that sports a wonderful ensemble cast. The players are more like old buddies than folks who just came together for a part-serious, part-humorous performance. Some in the audience may even lose themselves in the dialogue, which seems too fresh, friendly and natural to be a script.
The two-act, four-scene show with a single intermission takes place in the mid-1980s in Truvy’s beauty salon in Chinquapin, La., where “anybody who is anybody” comes to have their hair done. The set on the Playhouse stage impressively duplicates what we imagine to be a very well-equipped hair-styling venue.
The ladies who gather at Truvy’s don’t draw their energy from agreements. They thrive on discord and dote on arguments. But they fall into loving hugs with flowing tears if anything bad is in the offing.
Aided by her newly hired assistant Annelle (Hannah Rosenberg), the outspoken, wise-cracking Truvy (Julie Keefe) dispenses hair care products, free advice and personal opinions to all who choose to visit.
And that group includes the town’s rich, but terribly cranky curmudgeon, Ouiser (Rainey Haynes), who claims she has “been in a bad mood for 30 years”; Miss Clairee (Karen Whatley), an eccentric millionaire and widow of the town’s mayor ; and M’Lynn (Mary Ann Leavitt), the local social leader whose fragile daughter, Shelby (Kayla Vosburg), is going to get married that very day to a “good ole Southern boy” named Jordon.
The talk at Truvy’s quickly turns to Shelby’s wedding. She is tickled pink (remember this reference) to be moving to the next level of her life, admitting, though, she and Jordon don’t always see eye-to-eye.
Sitting in the chair at Truvy’s, Shelby goes into diabetic shock. All who work to bring her around realize she has Type 1 diabetes. Other health issues arise as the play continues, raising tensions between the stubborn Shelby and her doting mother.
Shelby continues to be the center of attention as the play progresses, through her wedding, the couple’s move away from home and Shelby’s return for a Christmastime visit – pregnant with a child that doctors warned her not to conceive. The play’s action remains within Truvy’s salon, which seems so comfortable and homey for the people in her klatch.
Harling’s mix of comedy and drama proves to be insightful and accurate about the way women respond to life’s serious crises, such as illness and death, and how they draw strength from relationships, even when those connections are tempered by differences of opinion.
All in all, Steel Magnolias is a touching portrait of women that celebrates their strength without being sentimental; that appreciates humor and irony without being patronizing, and that deals with life’s inevitable beginnings and endings without being maudlin.
The cast wins the audience over from the start with their charm and appeal. Keefe portrays Truvy with down-home honesty and understated confidence. As Annelle, Rosenberg matriculates from befuddlement to faith, finding God – and a husband – along the way. Touchingly, she vows to name her first child Shelby.
Whatley, appearing in her 21st show at DBP, nails the wit and wisdom of the rich widow, Clairee. Haynes captures the biting wit of the sarcastic older woman, Ouiser.
Leavitt doesn’t go overboard as the controlling, yet loving mother, M’Lynn. Vosberg, in her second Delray performance, portrays Shelby as a lovable, shining human spirit.
Steel Magnolias runs through May 16 at the Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th St. (Lake Shore Drive), Delray Beach. Tickets may be purchased online at www.delraybeachplayhouse.com or by calling 561-272-1281.