Natural style

The Theater Project's fab Steel Magnolias
May 7, 2008 11:35:34 AM
TOUCHING IT UP A BIT: With ease and grace.

The Louisiana salon run by Truvy (Wendy Poole) is packed with the stuff of 1980s comfort and beauty: Tab, trolls, and a whole slew of blow dryers. But more than a hair salon, her bright little shop is a hub in the emotional lives of six strong women, in Robert Harling’s much-produced tear-jerker Steel Magnolias. Christopher Price directs a crackerjack cast in a production at the Theater Project.

Over the course of a little more than two years, we track the women’s evolving lives, attitudes, and hair-dos: When we first meet Shelby (Elizabeth Chambers), she’s about to be married; she and her mom M’Lynn (Heather Weafer) talk out the jitters as they get primped by Truvy and her quirky new employee Annelle (Reba Short). About a generation above M’Lynn are the former mayor’s widow Clairee (Kate O’Neill) and the crabby, rich Ouiser (Michele Livermore Wigton), whose name is pronounced “Wheezer.” Together, the inter-generational friends talk their way through women’s perspectives on marriage, empty-nest syndrome, golden-years dating, pregnancy, spousal abandonment, religious conversion, and death — all the while being trimmed, teased, and polished.

Yes, it’s fair to call the script chick-lit for the stage, especially as tragedy works its way in. But in the hands of Price’s virtuoso cast, it’s more immediately an entertaining series of entwined regional character studies, rife with repartee. A quick scan of the cast list is enough to suggest the vitality, intelligence, and hilarity of this production. Chambers, Short, Poole, Weafer, and Wigton have a mighty rapport, won over numerous Theater Project shows together; and O’Neill, who’s acted with Portland Stage and Portland Players, has gracefully become part of the gang. This show’s small-town Louisiana kith and kin are savvy and tart, beautifully convey the passage of time, and never overstate the women’s emotions.

Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling | Directed by Christopher Price | Produced by The Theater Project, in Brunswick | through May 18 | 207.729.8584
Weafer and Chambers have a great mother-daughter riff, at once teasing and exasperated (Shelby’s Blush and Bashful wedding colors look like Pepto-Bismol to M’Lynne) and deeply affectionate, with much communicated in gazes. O’Neill's Clairee has a nice balance of rarefied and provincial, and Wigton is — as always — a delight in the curmudgeonly character role of Ouiser. Short gives the abruptly born-again stylist Annelle both ingénue qualities and convincingly wacky ones (I particularly love her enthusiasm for her Christmas tree decorations — “white lights, Jesuses, and spoolies!”). And Poole’s Truvy, whose cozy business holds everybody together, is both sassy and nurturing. She and Short also get props for having either consulted with a real beautician or possessing some natural styling abilities, because much of their stage time is spent doing graceful and intricate things to wigs with scissors, curlers, and picks.

Price’s set is absolute eye-candy, and he sure didn’t scrimp on the hair product, curling irons, dryers, and even combs and brushes in that weird blue sterilizing fluid. He’s also rigged up a real shampooing sink, with water, and one of those dryers that your whole head goes into. Such luxury! JP Gagnon, on lights, does characteristically lush work: Outside Truvy’s salon, the blue of the world is in Technicolor.

And there’s a lot of blue in the world of these fierce, coiffed ladies. But luckily, laughs temper much of it. Playwright Harling’s writing is best when it keeps to the wry side of things, particularly as it plumbs the comedic potential of their culture’s minutiae. The women rap about everything from recipes (Clairee’s “cuppa” recipe — a cuppa flour, a cuppa sugar, and a cuppa fruit cocktail — is so rich she has to cut the sweet with ice cream) to the Louisiana Man (whose general repertoire includes shooting, stuffing, and/or marrying).

They do also delve into the sadder stuff, and audience sniffles abounded on the weekend I attended. It’s to the credit of Price’s cast that even the sob parts are accompanied by these ladies’ tough, fetching wit. “The only thing that distinguishes us from the animals,” as Truvy remarks, “is our ability to accessorize.”

Megan Grumbling can be reached at .


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