In the last quarter or so of Steel Magnolias, author Robert Harling finally gets serious. For most of the play, he's tried our patience with meaningless chatter, tired one-liners, and, basically, enough fluff to keep us checking our watches. But now, just when we have every reason to expect more irrelevancies, one of his six characters dies, and the other five react with emotional urgency and eloquence.
Now the play isn't about the sitcom-ish adventures of two hair stylists and their best customers: Now it's about life and death and the way people rally to succor survivors. These last minutes of Steel Magnolias make for formidable theater on a subject of such fundamental human interest one can't help but be moved. But it's too little, too late: As we exit the theater, we remember not just the finale, but also all the tedious, unnecessary trivialities that preceded it. Did we really have to endure scenes one through three in order to earn scene four?
True, Harling's choice of setting points immediately to easy comedy. As in Shear Madness, we're in a hairstyling salon, where a group of carefully mismatched characters can humorously interact while waiting for their hair to dry. And those characters (all Southerners from Chinquapin, La.) are the inevitable mixed crew. There's Truvy Jones, the brassy owner of the shop, and her new assistant stylist, shy and awkward Annelle Depuy-Desoto. And there are the customers: Clairee Belcher, outspoken widow of the former mayor; Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie, a pretty young woman about to be married; M'Lynn Eatonton, Shelby's socially prominent mother; and Ouiser (pronounced "Weeser") Boudreaux, a wealthy, opinionated grouch.
Within a few minutes of the opening curtain, all six characters are on stage employing just the sort of dialogue that network television has taught us to loathe.
Says Shelby, about her nails: "This color is all wrong. It looks like a stuck pig bled all over my hands." Or she describes her fiance: "There was something so attractive about how stupid he looked."
Then there's football fan Clairee, on her late husband: "At least he hung on through the state playoffs." Or M'Lynn about the wedding chapel: "That sanctuary looks like it's been hosed down with Pepto-Bismol." What all these lines have in common is simply that they're supposed to make us laugh. As for credibility, rightness, organic necessity, well, don't look for it here. As Ouiser says, "Don't try to get on my good side. I no longer have one."
And even when the language isn't crafted to force a chuckle, its subject matter is miles from any real importance. So we hear about deceptively advertised nail polish colors, about spicy foods that make a character sweat, a man who repeatedly fires off his pistol to frighten birds, the neurotic dog whose psyche is troubled by these pistol shots ... it's all too marginal, too deliberately silly; we search vainly for a through line to genuinely care about.
Which isn't to say that characters don't change: Over the first three scenes of the play, one becomes religious, one takes up with a new beau, one decides to have a baby in spite of a health problem. But these changes are treated with too light a touch, without the sort of attention that might make them really matter. So when the death is suddenly revealed, we have to reorient ourselves towards what we thought was a subplot-in-passing. And we have to wonder why this story wasn't given the prominence it deserved.
The acting, meanwhile, is a confusing mix. Best of all are Chris Maria Reyes as M'Lynn and Valerie Stup as Shelby. Reyes' M'Lynn is a mother who's used to being contradicted by her grown daughter, but who loves her nonetheless and hasn't ceased to attempt — cautiously — to guide her. And Stup's Shelby is self-centered but charming, the sort of girl who in high school and college was instantly popular.
Also effective are Maggie Lynn Held as shop owner Truvy, and Nichole Aguero as born-again stylist Annelle. But there's a problem with the ages of Victoria Tan as Clairee and Gail Borges as Ouiser. Both Ouiser and Clairee are supposed to be in their mid-60s, but the actresses who play them seem at least 15 to 20 years younger. Under other circumstances, we might not notice; but both characters talk about being old, and the result is just confusing.
Further, Clairee calls herself "fat," while Tan is manifestly slender. Even with all these glitches, Tan's Clairee has a certain dignity. But Borges never seems right in the role of curmudgeon Ouiser, and her Southern accent comes and, mostly, goes.
One other problem is the use of unnatural-looking wigs on half the cast at times. Once again, this is a defect that, in some plays, might not matter. But in a drama set in a hair salon, it's a significant distraction. (And speaking of distractions, the acoustics in the upstairs space at the Italian Club are far from ideal: they tend to both muffle and blur the dialogue.)
Now I don't mean to suggest that there aren't some high points in Yo Soy Irini Productions' Steel Magnolias, even before that powerful fourth scene. The set, by Richard and Yvonne Aguero is nicely realistic; and the direction by Peter D'Alessio and Borges is usually well-paced. On occasion, Harling is capable of provocative writing, as when he has Truvy announce her creed: "There is no such thing as natural beauty." Or about the weather in Las Vegas: "I hear it's like living in a blow dryer." Or about coming to grips with one's appearance: "Our world is full of reflective surfaces." And M'Lynn has a nice line: "I don't know if I'm lucky to have what I have ... or lucky to know what I have."
But these moments are too isolated; what Steel Magnolias is mostly about is distrust: of the sad, somber story that the playwright really wants to tell, of the audience's willingness to hear such a story told. So what we get is a tragedy that tries to pass for a comedy, about characters who seldom speak from their hearts.
And the result is a play divided a gainst itself.
Contact performing arts critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.