You may have seen Steel Magnolias before, either on stage or on film, but you’ve never seen magnolias of steel quite like the six women now lighting up the stage at East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater.  Robert Harling’s now iconic Southern belles are Asian-American this time round, their ethnicity adding new shadings to this sextet of women whose delicate exteriors mask tough-as-nails cores.

EWP Steel Mags 5 Anyone who’s enjoyed the star-studded 1989 movie adaptation of Harling’s off-Broadway play will remember Sally Field’s M’Lynn, whose petite stature belied her inner strength in the face of tragedy and Shirley MacLaine’s Ouiser, the crabapple with a marshmallow core.  Still, no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie or watched it on DVD (and laughed and cried at its most memorable moments), seeing the original Harling play live on stage is always a treat.

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?

EWP Steel Mags 2 There’s big-haired beautician extraordinaire Truvy (Hiwa Bourne), whose “strict philosophy” is “There is no such thing as natural beauty.” Assisting Truvy is new-on-the-job Annelle (Lovelle Liquigan), a quirky 19-year-old. The town’s grande dame is recent widow Clairee (Dian Kobayashi), living life on her own for the first time in decades and not yet sure what to do about this unsolicited freedom. M’Lynn (Patti Yasutake) is a career woman whose daughter Shelby (Ruth Coughlin) is getting married today and therefore in need of a wedding “do” as only Truvy can do. Finally, there’s loveable grouch Ouiser (Karen Huie), 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 “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.

EWP Steel Mags 3 Probably the greatest joy of the East-West Players production is seeing playwright Harling’s beloved Magnolias embodied by six women who probably never thought they’d get cast in these roles were it not for Tim Dang and EWP.  (I’m told there were somewhere around 1000 submissions for these coveted roles.)

Director Laurie Woolery reveals the first of her numerous inspired touches by opening this Steel Magnolias with a full-stage “portrait” of all six before segueing into the play’s first scene.  And what women these half-dozen Magnolias are, particularly as given new life by a sextet of East West Players leading ladies.

EWP Steel Mags 4 Bourne, who scored laugh after laugh two years back playing another big-haired Southerner in East West Players’ Crimes Of The Hearts, scores again with Truvy, who unlike Crimes’ Chick has a heart (and a sense of humor) every bit as big as her hair—and gets to say things like, “Honey, time marches on and eventually you realize it is marchin’ across your face,” and “Louie brought his new girlfriend over, and the nicest thing I can say about her is all her tattoos are spelled correctly.”

Liquigan earns just about as many laughs by being geeky and gawky and downright adorable as lost-soul-turned-born-again Annelle, whose transformation over the course of Steel Magnolias’ two acts also includes becoming her own self-confident woman thanks to Truvy and the Beauty Spot gang.

Kobayashi is a wry delight as Clairee, Chinquapin’s most prominent female citizen, who’s not about to let a little thing like widowhood get 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-six 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.”

EWP Steel Mags 1 Yasutake is terrific too as salt-of-the earth M’Lynn, whose eleventh hour emotional meltdown provides the EWP veteran with a dynamite scene and audiences with one of the show’s most powerful, heart-wrenching moments.

Yasutake’s palpable mother-daughter chemistry with Coughlin is but one reason to love the latter’s performance, “Bashful” and “Blush” perfection as the EWP newbie digs deep into Homecoming Queen Shelby and locates her deep well of warmth and humanity.

Finally, in one of director Woolery’s most brilliant inspirations, Huie walks away with Most Memorable Performance honors by taking arguably the play’s most colorful character, crotchety old curmudgeon Ouiser, and playing her as First Generation Chinese-American, the accent (Cantonese with traces of Louisiana) and attitude doubling Ouiser’s laughs whether philosophizing (“The only reason people are nice to me is because I have more money than God”) or throwing out insults (“You are a pig from hell!”), all the while letting us know that her heart is every bit as big as those of her sister Magnolias.

Scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo’s beautiful, striking set contrasts pastel outlines against a jet black upstage wall, allows us to see the ladies’ comings and goings, and features prop master Yuki Izumihara’s appropriately Asian wall-hangings—fans, calendars, and the like.  Sara Ryung Clement’s costumes are not only character and ‘80s-appropriate, they feature drop-dead gorgeous color combinations and some of the sexiest high heels in town.  Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting design dazzles as well, as does Corinne Carrillo’s countrified sound design.  Daniel Reaño-Koven is stage manager.

East-West Players will once again offer Asian-American actresses “of a certain age” the spotlight in November’s third installment of the Nisei Widows saga (one that promises at least one hunky young Hawaiian surfer).  South Asians get the February spotlight (and a rainbow-colored one at that) as two handsome Indians (one of whom happens to be Caucasian) plan their Big Gay Indian Wedding in A Nice Indian Boy.  Beijing Spring, A Musical Odyssey, concludes EWP’s 48th Season with a very different return to the 1980s, a sung-through musical about the Tiananmen Square Uprising.

In the meantime, there are Robert Harling’s six Steel Magnolias, and only those with hearts of steel and no funny bone in their bodies will fail to find “laughter through tears,” Truvy’s “favorite emotion,” in this terrific Asian-American revival of an All-American comedy classic.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John  Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
September 11, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont






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