Those Steel Magnolias are back, and Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre has got’em—in a simply couldn’t-be-better production, one which is blessed with six of the finest performances you’re likely to see all year.

The Magnolias in question are, as most of you probably already know, that sextet of Louisiana women whose delicate exteriors hide tough-as-steel cores, six gals who’ve been friends through thick and thin and are just about the most entertaining women you’ll ever have the good fortune to spend two and a half hours with.

Unlike its 1989 movie adaptation, which took the action out into the fictional Louisiana town of Chinquapin and added male characters like M’Lynn’s husband Drum and son-in-law Jackson, Robert 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 beautician extraordinaire Truvy (Clarinda Ross), whose “strict philosophy” is “There is no such thing as natural beauty.” Assisting Truvy is new-on-the-job Annelle (Angela Goethals), a quirky reborn 19-year-old. The town’s grande dame is recent widow Clairee (Von Rae Wood), living life on her own for the first time in decades and not yet sure what to do about this unsolicited freedom. M’Lynn (Stephanie Zimbalist) is a career woman whose daughter Shelby (Amy Handleman) is getting married today and therefore in need of a wedding “do” as only Truvy can do. Finally, there’s loveable grouch Ouiser (Bonnie Franklin), 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.


Under Jenny Sullivan’s snappy, incisive direction, the entire cast give nuanced, richly-layered performances, even at their characters’ most archetypical moments. Franklin is always hilarious and ultimately quite touching as Ouiser, the mean ol’ lumberjack who’ll saw off her arm or leg if you need it. Zimbalist’s M’Lynn is such a pillar of strength that a sudden emotional meltdown comes as a shock—and a brilliant piece of acting. Wood is warm and wonderful as grand dame Clairee, Goethals a ditsy delight as Annelle, and Handelman the epitome of femininity and grit as Shelby. Most memorable of all this oh-so memorable bunch is larger-than-life Ross who so reinvents the Dolly Parton role that you may think you are meeting Truvy for the very first time.

Scenic designer Thomas S. Giamario has created a welcomingly woodsy carport-turned-beauty salon for Truvy and her customers slash best girlfriends, with carefully detailed touches including the changing-by-season foliage glimpsed through its windows. Doing double duty as lighting designer, Giamario has lit his scenic creation to mood-enhancing perfection, props and set dressing meticulously created by T. Theresa Scarano. Kenneth Hobbs’ excellent sound design glides us in and out of scenes with local radio talk and just right mood music. Pamela Shaw’s costumes and Marty Kopulsky’s hair and make-up reveal almost as much about the six women as do Harling’s words and the cast’s performances. Dialect coach Rod Menzies helps us believe that all six women are Louisiana born and bred. Kathleen J. Parsons and Tobias Peltier are production stage managers, Christina M. Burck production manager, and David King technical director.

Steel Magnolias further cements the Rubicon’s reputation as one of Southern California’s premier regional theaters. With a cast as stellar the one now on stage in a play whose very title is sure to sell thousands of tickets, the words “smash hit” will for the next several weeks be spelled S-T-E-E-L M-A-G-N-O-L-I-A-S.

Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.

–Steven Stanley
August 27, 2011
Photos: James Scolari

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