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'Steel Magnolias' a funny, charming tale of women's solidarity

Southern friends help each other over crises caused by men

Published June 2005

By Lucy Komisar


Steel Magnolias
Written by Robert Harling
Directed by Jason Moore

Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street

Women's solidarity, southern style, sparkles in this funny 1987 play by Robert Harling. The "steel" is required to toughen them against the inevitable foolishness of men. Set in The Beauty Spot, a cluttered hair salon which occupies the carport of the home of Truvy (Delta Burke), this is a comically serious look at life in Chinquapin Parish, La.

Into the beauty parlor over the course of two and a half year, we see a lot of shampooing and setting as clients arrive and gossip about the high and low spots of their lives. (The shop's motto is: "There is no such thing as natural beauty.") The women's lives seem determined by men, even when the men are absent. The wise-cracking, acerbic Truvy supports her unseen couch-potato husband, Annelle (Lily Rabe) has left a no-account spouse and gotten a helper's job with Truvy, and Clairee (Frances Sternhagen), widow of the mayor, is trying to get used to being alone.

Delta Burke and Rebecca Gayheart
Delta Burke and Rebecca Gayheart
Photos by Joan Marcus
Shelby (Rebecca Gayheart), a young woman who obsesses on pink (typical fairy tale "girl" stuff), is about to be married to a rather demanding lawyer, and her mother M'Lynn (Christine Ebersole) must deal with an erratic husband who likes to shoot off his gun around town.

The only one who doesn't seem to have a man creating problems for her is Ouiser (Marsha Mason), a sour but crafty lady who is mad at the world. Her Christmas yard wreath says, "Keep off the grass." Ouiser announces: "I'm not crazy; I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years." But there's a male ghost even in her past.

Truvy's clients arrive one Saturday to get their hair done for the wedding. But what starts out as innocent gossip and girl talk clearly has deeper significance.

Lily Rabe and Christine Ebersole
Lily Rabe and Christine Ebersole
M'Lynn, in a strong sensitive portrayal by Christine Ebersole, is the most complex figure. She works at a mental guidance center where she deals with disturbed townsfolk, and family illness confronts her with major challenges.

Aside from that, Annelle (well acted by Rabe as a nervous, jittery young woman) and Clairee (played with typical acerbic zest by Sternhagen) both need to rebuild their lives. They take off in very different directions, but each makes a strong, self-determined choice.

Delta Burke and Frances Sternhagen
Delta Burke and Frances Sternhagen
This story could have drowned in deep sit-com or soap opera, but with Jason Moore's clear and sympathetic direction, the play never gets bogged down in silliness or sentimentality. We end up liking the six strong women as much as they like each other.

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