A trio of L.A. busiest community and 99-seat theater veterans, a pair of musical theater triple-threats, and one relative newcomer to our Los Angeles stage scene join forces to bring Little Fish Theatre’s revival of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias to effervescent life.

998592_10151433460651373_1274903789_n 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 beautician extraordinaire Truvy (Chiquita Fuller), whose “strict philosophy” is “There is no such thing as natural beauty.” Assisting Truvy is new-on-the-job Annelle (Kristin Towers-Rowles), a quirky reborn Chinquapin newcomer. The town’s grande dame is recent widow Clairee (Susie McCarthy), living life on her own for the first time in decades and not yet sure what to do about this unsolicited freedom. M’Lynn (Amanda Karr) is a career woman whose daughter Shelby (Daina Baker Bowler) is getting married today and therefore in need of a wedding “do” as only Truvy can do. Finally, there’s loveable curmudgeon Ouiser (Mary-Margaret Lewis), 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.

Ouiser&M'Lynn-SM-LFT13-ME1425 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 James Rice’s assured direction, a splendid sextet of actresses deliver topnotch performances on the Little Fish Theatre stage despite an occasional fluffed line here or there.

Truvy&M'Lynn-SM-LFT13-ME1857 As M’Lynn, the divine Karr adds yet another performance gem to her already bejeweled résumé, giving us a woman of boundless maternal warmth and good humor, making Shelby’s mom’s eleventh-hour emotional meltdown all the more powerful. Bowler is a perky delight as the object of M’Lynn’s motherly affection, a radiant smile masking the character’s doubts and fears in true Southern Belle fashion. McCarthy inhabits Clairee’s zesty, wisecracking-yet-caring skin to terrific effect and Lewis is crabby perfection as legendary local grouch Ouiser, each one giving as good as she gets in the duo’s life-long feud. Towers-Rowles proves herself every bit the actress as she is the musical theater star, revealing Annelle’s growth from quirky, ill-at-ease newcomer to confident member of the Steel Magnolias family circle. Finally, though an African-American Truvy in late-‘80s small-town Louisiana may be wishful thinking on director Rice’s part, Fuller’s sassy/wise salonista proves a bracing breath of fresh air in Harling’s much-performed modern classic.

1012605_10151443992086373_139367853_n In a case of art imitating life, scenic designer Christopher Beyries has transformed Little Fish’s auto mechanic’s garage-turned-theater into Truvy’s meticulously appointed carport-turned-beauty salon, making us feel that we are right inside the salon along with Harling’s six magnolias. Props mistress Teresa Stirewait has filled Truvy’s Beauty Spot with just the right mix of doodads and thingamabobs. Darrell Clark light Beyries’ set quite effectively, while Holly Baker-Krieswirth mixes assorted gunshots and explosions with good ol’ country music and local radio broadcasts in her as-always excellent sound design. As for Leslie Stamoolis’s costumes, while they do reflect the personalities of the characters wearing them, a wardrobe made up almost exclusively of slacks and jeans proves too much steel and not enough magnolias for women whose fashion choices would surely have included at least some frilly, big-shouldered ‘80s dresses.

Steel Magnolias is produced by Stephanie Coltrin. Stephanie Sintef is stage manager.

No matter whether you’ve seen Steel Magnolias umpteen times (on film or on stage) or this is your first visit to Truvy’s, Harling’s chef-d’oeuvre shines as bright as ever on the Little Fish Theatre stage.

Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St. San Pedro.

–Steven Stanley
June 28, 2013
Photos: Mickey Elliot

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