Review: STEEL MAGNOLIAS at Theatre at the Center

Review: STEEL MAGNOLIAS at Theatre at the Center

Pictured (left to right): Landree Fleming and Heidi Kettenring. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

By Elizabeth Ellis

Theatre at the Center is not so far from Chicago: less than an hour’s drive away, to be specific. If you want a short excursion out of the city proper, and to get the feel of the Louisiana bayou, head down to Munster, Indiana and see a lovely production of Robert Harling’s classic piece about women, friendship, and good hair: STEEL MAGNOLIAS.

For those few not familiar with the Magnolias: The play takes place in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, at the most popular beauty salon in town, Truvy’s Beauty Spot. The proprietor, the warm and friendly Truvy (Heidi Kettenring), offers not only beautification to the town’s women, but a place to commiserate, gossip, and forge friendships. Salon regulars include social worker M’Lynn (Cory Goodrich); Chinquapin’s former First Lady, Clairee (Jeannie Affelder); Clairee’s best friend and the town curmudgeon, Ouiser (Joslyn Yvonne Jones); Truvy’s new assistant stylist, Annelle (Myesha-Tiara); and M’Lynn’s daughter, the lovely Shelby (Landree Fleming). The opening scene is a busy day at the salon; it’s Shelby’s wedding day, and Annelle’s first day at her new job. As the play progresses, we see transitions mostly through holiday decorations in the Beauty Spot, and through Shelby’s experiences as a new bride, as she deals with a pregnancy complicated by her diabetes, and as a new mother..

STEEL MAGNOLIAS offers a fantastic opportunity for actors to sink their teeth into some meaty and multi-dimensional roles. The problem, however, with producing a play like STEEL MAGNOLIAS, besides the fact that it was made into a wildly successful 1989 film starring familiar and terrific actors, is that it’s entered the cultural consciousness. Audiences know many of the storylines, characters, and dialogue by heart. Phrases like “Shelby, drink your juice” and “There is no such thing as natural beauty” are as familiar as Shelby’s Pepto-Bismol-pink wedding chapel. The challenging task is for the director, cast, and crew to put their own personal mark on the production. For the most part, this one achieves that goal. Greg Pinsoneault’s set is a fantastic rendering of the Beauty Spot, and his thoughtful touches and Brittney O’Keefe’s props cement the authenticity, right down to the jars of Barbicide. The wig designer, Kevin Barthel, has a titanic job to make the women of Chinquapin look like they just stepped out of a salon, and he accomplishes this admirably. Each of the fine actors does lovely work, with special mention to Kettenring and Fleming.

If there is an area of the production that could use some fine tuning, it’s the direction. Linda Fortunato has assembled some wonderful actors, but they don’t take the more dramatic moments far and deep enough to create an impact. Yes, STEEL MAGNOLIAS is mostly a comedy, but it does have some truly sad and moving aspects, and the actresses don’t take the time to sit with the sadness and explore those moments to their full expression. Instead, they move fairly quickly back to the lighter and more comedic interactions. A minor point to be sure, but these talented actors could absolutely handle the heavier weight as well as they handle the humor.

STEEL MAGNOLIAS gives some excellent Chicago actors an opportunity to shine outside of the city limits in a classic and wonderful story about the bonds of sisterhood, and is well worth a visit to our neighbors to the east.

STEEL MAGNOLIAS runs through March 25th. For more information visit theatreatthecenter.com.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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