Anyone who attends live theatre in the south with any regularity recognizes the fact that Robert Harling’s tried and true fan favorite, Steel Magnolias is likely to bloom in at least one regional company’s season each year. This year the honor/challenge falls squarely on the shoulders of Circle Players, Nashville’s oldest continuing theatre company. Under the direction of Melissa Williams, the latest presentation of Steel Magnolias concludes its three-week runs with performances at Z. Alexander Looby Theatre (2301 Rosa Parks Blvd, Nashville, TN 37228) on Sunday, April 8.
Written to honor his late sister, Harling’s Steel Magnolias focuses on the relationships of six women who share the joys and sorrows of their lives during their weekly visits to a local in-home hair salon in the fictional town of Chinquapin, Louisiana circa 1980-something.
Having debuted off-Broadway in 1987, Steel Magnolias ran for nearly three years. During that same time, the story reached a larger audience and achieved pop culture status when it was adapted by Harling for the 1989 smash-hit film version starring Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts. The same year as the film’s release, a national tour set out across the country featuring Carole Cook, June Lockhart, Margo Martingale and eventually Marion Ross, who took over Lockhart’s role. Heck, a year later there was even a summer TV pilot film featuring Cindy Williams and Elaine Stritch. In 2005 the play finally made its official Broadway debut. As recent as 2012, Hollywood once again tried to reboot when Lifetime TV produced an all-African-American made-for-TV movie version starring Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, Alfre Woodard and others in 2012. All this to say…Steel Magnolias shows no signs of withering and dying any time soon. For Circle Players, director Williams has assembled an earnest and enthusiastic group.
Making her community theatre debut is Hannah Reynolds as Shelby. Certainly looking the part of Shelby—let’s face it, thanks to the ’89 film, no matter what, most will compare all future stagings to the movie—the night I attended, Reynolds seemed to have a tendency to rush her lines, as though reciting them, rather than revealing them, perhaps it was just a bit of nerves, but once she got comfortable, most notably during a particularly intimate one-on-one scene between Reynolds’ Shelby and M’Lynn, Shelby’s mother, she slowed her pace and delivered quite a subtle, yet emotion-filled performance. When I chatted with Reynolds for my latest Rapid Fire 20 Q, she revealed that she had researched details of diabetic seizures, something the character of Shelby experiences in one of the show’s most quotable moments. That research paid off, as Reynolds’ physicality during that trying scene produces on of the show’s more believable moments.
Speaking of Shelby’s mother, Pat Street, making her Circle Players debut, turns in a commendable performance as worry-wart M’Lynn. Where the character could easily slip into over-emoting, Street plays the role with a nice balance of chaotic concern and realized acquiescence.
Kathleen Jaffe stars as Truvy, the smart-mouthed owner of Truvy’s Beauty Spot. Yes, the Dolly Parton role from the film. Whether a directorial choice to step away from the larger-than-life Truvy of the film, or simply Jaffe’s characterization, Truvy is played with much less spunk than fans of the film might expect. Her droll delivery, perhaps an attempt at a seductively slow southern accent, unfortunately causes some of the character’s wittier lines to land flat, depriving the audience of oft-much-needed laughs. Regardless, Jaffe’s Truvy still anchors the play and she does so with a gentleness that makes her portrayal relatable as big sister, mother hen, best friend and confidant…all in one down-home package.
The cast’s youngest member, Kamryn Boyd plays Annelle. Boyd is simply wonderful as Truvy’s quirky apprentice hairstylist. Boyd simply steals each scene she’s a part of. As she mentioned when we chatted for my Rapid Fire 20 Q, Annelle not only emotionally changes, but her physical appearance morphs throughout the show. Boyd is as convincing as the insecure Annelle first introduced at the top of the play as she is wild-child, Bible-thumper and finally, expectant mom at show’s end. Still in high school, Boyd is one local talent to keep an eye on.
Due to illness, the actress originally cast as Ouiser had to depart the production. Enter director Williams (credited in the program as Melissa Anne Willams, complete with a totally different headshot than her director credit), who stepped into the role late in the game. She plays Ouiser as the stereotypical cantankerous southern oddball loner and it works quite well, although there are times when the actress may have benefitted from a little direction from someone other than herself, but when you’re at the helm, I imagine it can be quite difficult for someone to speak up and reign you in. Still, considering the character, it sort of fits.
Rounding out the cast is Linda Speir as Clairee, the former first lady of the town, who’s all class and a little sass. Spier is simply brilliant, landing every line, every look, every step with perfection. Even dressing the part, I suspect she brought in her own clothes for the role, as some of the other wardrobe choices didn’t quite hit the mark. Speir’s Clairee is the southern lady all true southern ladies wish they were. I can’t say enough about her performance other than to say she’s truly an absolute joy to watch from her first entrance to the final curtain call. Having played the role of Clairee in a recent production at The Roxy Theatre, after seeing Speir as Clairee in Circle’s production, I’ve decided IF there has to be a Steel Magnolias at one theatre or another in the Nashville area every theatre season, Speir should always be cast as Clairee.
As a director, Williams does a nice job of creating a sense of friendship, even amongst frenemies Clairee and Ouiser and her attention to background direction is enjoyable. I particularly appreciated actual juice in the “drink your juice, Shelby” scene, and loved catching Annelle reading her pocket-size Bible during a scene in which the other ladies were being a bit raucous. There were, however, times when some of the show’s beloved one-liners were a bit hard to hear because there was simply too much commotion going on on-stage, but overall, for her first time directing for Circle, Williams did an admirable job.
Kudos also to set designer Jim Default and props mistress Suzanne Spooner-Faulk for creating a completely realistic southern beauty salon, complete with my favorite prop of the show, the hand-held clear plastic face shied Shelby uses to keep the hairspray off her face.
Speaking of hair, you just can’t do Steel Magnolias justice without big hair and sadly it’s just non-existent in this production. While Boyd’s Annelle is to be commended for actually performing two-thirds of a ‘wash and set’ on Street’s M’Lynn (she actually wets her fellow actresses hair and proceeds to roll it on pin-curls during the scene), I longed for some truly big hair throughout the show. I feel confident there’s a wig shop or drag queens who’d loan out a few wigs in exchange for a mention in the program.
Minor missteps aside, when you’re working with brilliantly funny, sometimes touching, always entertaining dialogue from Robert Harling’s most memorable piece, and have young talented actors like Boyd and seasoned professionals like Spier in the mix, the final result is an enjoyable night of ‘laughter through tears’. As Truvy says, “that’s my favorite emotion” and that’s just what Circle Players’ Steel Magnolias delivers.
Steel Magnolias wraps its three-week run with Thursday-Sunday performances through April 8 at the Looby Theatre (2301 Rosa Parks Blvd.,Nashville). Remaining performances are Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and a final matinee performance Sunday, April 8 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 each. Click Here to order tickets, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Up next, Circle Players will close out their current season with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast directed by Katharine Boettcher with performances June 1-June 17. Click Here for tickets. Don’t forget to follow Circle Players on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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