ASHLAND – Guffaws galore, spirited friendships, surprise revelations and touchingly genuine heartaches are among the allures of “Steel Magnolias,” the season opening offering at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland.
Many are familiar with the 1989 film that starred such luminaries as Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah and a large cast of others. But part of the pleasure and success of the Cabaret production stems from its lack of known stars, which allows audiences to see the six actresses in the all-female cast as real women.
“Steel Magnolias” is set in Truvy’s beauty salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana, where the ladies have their hair done and, just as importantly, chat about community goings-on. It’s a place where the ladies share, often reluctantly, their hopes, frustrations, fears and joys. Overseeing the salon is its outgoing, advice-giving owner Truvy. As the play opens, she welcomes her new assistant, Annelle, a young woman with her own story that’s waiting to be told. Like Truby and Annelle, all the ladies have stories, and some of them unfold in bits and pieces. At the center of the play are M’Lynn, the seemingly overbearing mother of Shelby, who as the play opens is about to marry. Providing advice and commentary, whether asked for or not, are Miss Clairee, a moneyed-widow, and Ouiser, the town’s growly curmudgeon.
The performances are poignant, often powerful and nuanced. The cast includes Millicent Hunnicutt as Truvy, Be Boulay as Annelle, Catherine Lynn Davis as Clairee, Katy Wilson as Shelby, Julie Cardia as My’Lynn and Renee Hewitt as Ouiser.
The story’s focus quickly shifts gears from its comic preludes. M’Lynn’s concerns become understandable as Shelby marries, gives birth after a potentially dangerous pregnancy and as she and her mother tackle daunting health concerns. Through it all — as each woman deals with or puts up with their lesser life challenges – as a group they find release and take comfort in each other. Their emotions, especially in times of despair, feel genuine. That’s because the play, written by Robert Harling, is based on his real-life experience with the death of his sister. On a personal note, having lost a too-young daughter to cancer, the story generated a spectrum of emotion and feelings.
For the play’s director Galloway Stevens, who grew up in North Carolina, the play has other meaning. In his program notes Stevens says he was attracted to “Steel Magnolias” because the play avoids Southern stereotypes and because it “not only celebrates a sense of my home, but more importantly it transcends the region of ‘the South’ and promotes the power of resilient women found in every community across the nation.”
There’s much to like and celebrate about “Steel Magnolias.”
And, if you’re wondering, a list of Steel Magnolias meanings include “a woman who exemplifies both traditional femininity as well as uncommon fortitude,” ”a woman who has faced adversity full on with grace, poise and dignity,” and, as it truly applies to the ladies of “Steel Magnolias,” “a woman who possesses the strength of steel, yet the gentleness of a magnolia.”