The unique bonds of female friendship are at the heart of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, now in the middle of its run at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. Based on the life of Harling’s sister, the show debuted off-Broadway in 1987 and shortly thereafter was adapted into the successful film starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts in an early Academy Award-nominated role.
Set in a Louisiana hair salon, it’s the tale of a group of small-town Southern “belles” of all ages and statuses who gather to gossip, share recipes, and occasionally get their hair done. There’s Truvy (Jennifer Peck), the bubbly proprietor and chief conduit of all local information, Annelle (Crystal Carpenter Wilson), the new girl in town who hires on at the salon as the show begins, Shelby (Ellen Rawley), an independent young woman about to be married, M’Lynn (Jill K. Wagoner), Shelby’s lovingly-controlling mother, Ouiser (mollie boice), the town “character”, and Clairee (Kate Brickley), widow of the mayor and town sage.
The play opens on Shelby’s wedding day and progresses through the next couple of years. We see changes in all of their lives, from Shelby’s desire for a family to Annelle’s maturation from an insecure lost lamb to true believer. M’Lynn struggles with letting her daughter live her own life, while Ousier, who really isn’t crazy (she’s “just been in a very bad mood for 40 years”), reconnects with an old flame. Clairee starts to step out of her late husband’s shadow and expand her horizons. It’s a tear-jerker, so someone’s gonna get sick and… well, you know.
Director Beulah Vega’s got a top-notch cast at work here with each actor providing a fully-formed character that while steeped in cliché is wholly believable. Kate Brickley’s Clairee is the heart of the show, overseeing things from a waiting chair and tossing out a quip every now and then. She’s the town mother, which is not meant to take anything away from Jill Wagoner’s M’Lynn, who is excellent as Shelby’s mother, torn between her daughter’s desire to be happy and what may be truly best for her. mollie boice follows up her role from earlier this year as a cantankerous Southern senior in Spreckel’s The Sugar Bean Sisters with her work here as a cantankerous Southern senior. Madame boice would seem to have a lock on this type of role and delivers the goods.
If Clairee is the heart of the show, then surely Ellen Rawley’s Shelby is the soul. To steal a line from another show currently running, she’s always looking on the bright side of life and Rawley is charming in the role. Crystal Carpenter Wilson’s Annelle has the greatest character arc and by the play’s conclusion has come into her own as a strong woman. The glue that holds this group together is Jennifer Peck’s Truvy. Her beauty shop is their refuge and Peck plays her with a heart of gold and a great deal of humor. The affection she holds for others and that others hold for her really comes through.
That beauty shop is well represented on the GK Hardt stage with a nicely appointed scenic design by Sam Transleau. Props for making it a functional shop, where hair is actually shampooed (not mimed) and props to the cast for taking on the challenge of setting curlers while performing. Set in the 80’s, the time is well represented in the costume choices of designer Gail Reine.
Full of humor, pathos and delivered via excellent character work by the entire cast, the 6th Street Playhouse production of Steel Magnolias delivers a heaping helping of southern comfort to its audience, and not just a female audience. Consider making an appointment.
Steel Magnolias plays at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through November 5 with evening performances at 7:30pm and matinees at 2pm.
For more information, go to 6thsteetplayhouse.com