INNER BEAUTY Warren (top) and Lambert.
The first thing you need to know is that over the course of watching Steel Magnolias, which is getting a no-laffs-barred production by Trinity Repertory Company (through May 15), all my testosterone drained out and pooled at my feet. That's an encouraging sign if you're a woman, but it's also not a dealbreaker if you're a guy.

This 1987 play by Robert Harling, set in a northwest Louisiana beauty parlor, is a cultural case study of social Americana, sociable Southern Division. As my Louisiana in-laws have long taught me, smug Yankee superiority is no match for sweet hospitality and good humor.

Trinity's production is a hoot and a holler, shaking every last laugh out of the script. But it's also respectful of the play's serious subtext, that a light heart can steel us against the worst pain we can face, the death of a loved one.

The well-rounded presentation, keeping fun and poignancy in proper balance, has passed through a male sensibility. Director Brian Mertes ends each act with Nancy Sinatra's gentle "Time" playing in the background as the actors go on with life, and he has the play end with a touching, life-affirming image.

The center of attention in the all-female cast of six is the owner of the beauty shop, Truvy Jones (Rachael Warren), a stunning presence with her explosion of curly red hair, and an antic personality thanks to Warren's riding the roller-coaster character with squealing, hands-off-the-safety-bar glee. Oh, she's a doodle, that Truvy, coming up with such wisecracks as, "There is no such thing as natural beauty."

Equal to her in energy, but of a nervous sort, is Annelle Dupuy Desoto (Alexandra Lawrence), a recent beauty school graduate in desperate need of a job, since her husband left with all her money. When Truvy hires her, Annelle's hissy fit of happiness looks like Oprah just gave her a new Beetle. In this production's interpretation, her appearance quickly morphs from black and lime-green goth to just one of the girls. That's supposed to signify her comfort and their acceptance, but the former image without whispered comment does strain credibility a bit. (Her later transformation into a born-again Christian, however, seems right.)

The other regulars include Clairee (Barbara Meek), widowed wife of the former mayor, who defines herself with the statement, "The only thing that separates us from the animals is the ability to accessorize." There is Louise "Ouiser" Boudreaux (Anne Scurria), whose gruff exterior hides a heart of gold that we eventually see glint. And then there is M'Lynn Eatenton (Janice Duclos); shotgun blasts from her husband Drum, designed to scare away birds, keep interrupting their conversation. ("Oh, he's a real gentleman," next-door neighbor Ouiser says of him. "I'll bet he takes the dishes out of the sink before he pees into it.")

Eventually the play's focus of concern swans in to music of the sort that introduces TV show stars. At first M'Lynn's daughter, Shelby (Madeleine Lambert), seems like she might be a spoiled princess — "On cloudy days I feel like God isn't trying very hard, so I don't either." But we're sympathetic even before she goes into insulin shock and everybody huddles around her as M'Lynn feeds her orange juice. "I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special," Shelby also remarks, which wins us over.

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