Steel Magnolias: (n) any of those Southern women whose delicate exterior hides a tough-as-nails core

Anyone who’s seen the star-studded 1989 movie adaptation of Robert Harling’s off-Broadway play doesn’t need to consult Websters to know what a Steel Magnolia is. We all remember Sally Field’s M’Lynn, whose petite stature belied her inner strength in the face of tragedy, or Shirley MacLaine’s Ouiser, the curmudgeon with a marshmallow heart hidden deep inside.  On the other hand, no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie or watched it on DVD (and laughed and cried at all the most memorable moments), seeing the original Harling play live on stage is a treat, and when performed by a cast as all-around terrific as the one assembled at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts, the treat is a tasty one indeed.

Unlike the movie version, which added male characters like M’Lynn’s husband Drum and son-in-law Jackson and took the action out into the fictional Louisiana town of Chinquapin, Harling’s 1987 theatrical original stays comfortably inside Truvy’s Beauty Spot and sticks to the six titular Magnolias. After all, who needs men to clutter up the stage when you’ve got women like these?

There’s big-haired blonde beautician extraordinaire Truvy (Christa Jackson), whose “strict philosophy” is “There is no such thing as natural beauty.” Assisting Truvy is new-on-the-job Annelle (Emma Fassler), a quirky reborn 19-year-old. The town’s grande dame is recent widow Clairee (Rosina Reynolds), living life on her own for the first time in decades and not yet sure what to do about this unsolicited freedom. M’Lynn (Cathy Rigby) is a career woman whose daughter Shelby (Amy Sloan) is getting married today and therefore in need of a wedding “do” as only Truvy can do. Finally, there’s loveable grouch Ouiser (Michael Learned), who’s “been in a very bad mood for forty years” and is always on the rampage against something or someone, most recently M’Lynn’s rifle-toting husband.

Not an awful lot happens over the course of the play’s two acts, with one major exception. It’s mostly a lot of very funny Southern talk, filled with the kind of wit, wisdom, and one-liners that women south of the Mason-Dixon line are famous for.  Truvy’s got the best of the latter, quips like “In a good shoe, I wear a size six, but a seven feels so good, I buy a size eight,” and “Honey, time marches on and eventually you realize it is marchin’ across your face,” and “Sammy’s so confused he don’t know whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt.”  As for witty wisdom, there are comments like Clairee’s, that “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize,” or Ouiser’s that “A dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

These Southern women do love their gossip, and no one more than Clairee, who declares, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!” On the other hand, let one of them suffer a personal tragedy and she will be surrounded by love and support and plenty of southern fried cooking to ease the pain.

Probably the greatest joy of the McCoy-Rigby production is seeing playwright Harling’s beloved Magnolias embodied by A-list actresses who put their own personal stamp on each character, and Kite, named 2007-8 Director Of The Year (Drama Or Comedy) by StageSceneLA for his work staging Driving Miss Daisy and  The Glass Menagerie, has brought out the best in these six sensational leading ladies.

Learned has made a career out of playing mothers, mostly of the noble variety, so it’s a bit of a surprise and a real joy as well to see her in crotchety mode (as she was in her much lauded performance as Miss Daisy a couple years back). Learned has great fun with lines like “You are a pig from hell,” but she shows us exactly why even arch-enemy Clairee can tell Ouiser in all honesty, “You know I love you more than my luggage.”

The production’s other big name is of course that of Olympic medalist Rigby, who’s gone on to a successful career in musical theater, most famously her Tony-nominated performance as Peter Pan. Two years ago, Rigby played her first role in a straight play at the La Mirada, a delightful canine turn as Sylvia, but M’Lynn is her first non-singing adult human character, and she is wonderful, her eleventh hour emotional meltdown as deeply felt and moving as they come.

Amy Sloan, the excellent Ann in All My Sons at the Geffen a few years back and a busy TV actress, makes a welcome return to the stage as Shelby, a performance that immediately erases memories of Julia Roberts, Sloan making the young bride entirely her own.  The lovely actress imbues Shelby with depth and fire, and her scenes opposite Rigby have the real mother-daughter ring of truth.

Truvy is played to the hilt by Christa Jackson, recent winner of StageSceneLA’s Musical Theater Performance Of The Year for her work as Evita. Jackson had returned to her southern roots in La Mirada’s Ring Of Fire earlier this year, but that was an all-singing role.  In Steel Magnolias, the actress gets to sink her teeth into one of her very first non-musical roles, and she appears to be relishing every minute of it.  She takes what in lesser hands could be a stereotype and makes her the emotional center of the play.

Reynolds does gorgeous work too as Clairee, Chinquapin’s most prominent female citizen, who’s not about to let a little thing like widowhood come in the way of her zest for living.  She’s also the Magnolia who’s been educating theater audiences about acceptance for the past twenty years, telling her Beauty Spot friends that her gay nephew Marshall, whose parents haven’t been too thrilled about his coming out, is “always welcome at my house.  I’m very proud of him.” I love this about Clairee and I loved Reynolds in the role.

Finally, there’s fresh-out-of-UCLA Fassler, who simply couldn’t be better as adorable oddball Annelle, more than holding her own opposite her more seasoned costars.

John Iacovelli has once again filled the mile-wide La Mirada stage with a great set design, Truvy’s Beauty Spot in shades of pastel yellow and pink. Julie Keen’s costumes have just the right 1980s touch, particularly Clairee’s great big shoulder pads. The Beauty Spot has been beautifully lit by Craig Pierce, and sound designer Josh Bessom has done a good job with Drum’s nerve-wracking gun shots and some country tunes on the radio. (Though amplification is a must in a theater the size of the La Mirada, it would be nice if a way could be found to make straight plays at La Mirada not sound amplified even close up.)

I’ve seen Steel Magnolias (The Movie) a number of times since its 1989 release, but this was my first exposure to Steel Magnolias on stage, and what a great introduction it was. Steel Magnolias is a play I’d enjoy seeing again and again, with different casts giving us their own takes on these great women, something which the cast at La Mirada do to perfection.  These Steel Magnolias are a joy to watch from start to finish.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.

–Steven Stanley
October 6, 2009
                                                                           Photos: Michael Lamont

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