Review: Theatre Arlington brings us home with a moving STEEL MAGNOLIAS

Myiesha J. Duff as Clairee and
Cheryl Ford-Mente as Ouiser: Photos by Gloria Adame

Steel Magnolia

By Robert Harling 
Directed by Steven D. Morris 
Produced by Theatre Arlington

Audience Rating: PG
Running Time: 2 hours with a 15 min intermission
Accessible Seating: Available
Hearing Devices: Available
Sensory Friendly Showing: Not Available
ASL Showing: Not Available
Sound Level: Comfortable Sound Level, quiet at times
Noises or Visuals to Prepare For: none of note

Reviewed by Stacey Calvert

“He went on and on about how delightful and funny the first half was during intermission. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.“ Those were the words of a theatergoer sitting behind us at the opening night of Steel Magnolias at Theatre Arlington. He was speaking of his friend who had come along to see the play, having never before seen Steel Magnolias. As someone who has seen both the play and the movie version more times than I can count, it was enjoyable for me to experience a first timer’s reactions to this iconic, Southern play. His audible gasp when certain things were revealed in the second half of the show told me everything I needed to know about whether the audience was fully engaged in the moving experience the actors were creating. It was an evening well spent at the theatre.

In its beauty parlor setting that creates a safe space for six small-town women to share their hopes, dreams, frustrations, fashion finds, and a bit of juicy gossip, Steel Magnolias veers between comedy and drama. Even if you’ve never seen it before, you will no doubt recognize some of its well-known one liners, such as Clairee’s “if you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me!” I was again struck by playwright Robert Harling’s true affection for his characters and how well he tells the story through the women’s point of view. Although they are each quirky and unique, they never tip over into caricature.

There’s no question that theater magic was created by the six talented women onstage at Theatre Arlington’s production, along with the creative and production staff helmed by Steven D. Morris. The sense of audience immersion in the story got stronger throughout the play as the characters’ chemistry grew over the 2 1/2 hour show. Hairdresser Truvy, in particular, was played in such an engaging way by Shannon McGrann. Her easy physical affection with the other characters on stage and natural, hilarious delivery of warm, down-home pearls of wisdom made you wish that she were your friend, too. The crotchety town grump Ouiser Boudreaux, scowlingly and convincingly played by Cheryl Ford-Mente, was a hoot and kept the audience in stitches with her strongly stated opinions on, well, everything (she’s not a fan of healthy food, tourists who park on her lawn, or being prayed for). Subtle character choices such as M’Lynn’s (Cara Serber, in an understated and impactful performance) silent, speaking glances to her daughter Shelby, and the winsome Shelby‘s (played by the charming Olivia Cinquepalmi) wide-eyed enthusiasm for life delivered in a sweet-sounding Southern drawl, brought these characters to life and made the audience fall in love with them.

Myiesha J. Duff as eccentric, wealthy widow Clairee was charmingly outrageous. I enjoyed the way she laughed at her own jokes and made them even funnier. The audience seemed to get a kick out of small, humorous moments such as holy roller salon assistant Annelle (GeCamri Amberay) peering, scandalized, over her carefully-chosen reading material. 

Although the action is set in the 1980s and there are several 80s references, the set itself as well as the costumes were not obviously “retro” and were fairly understated and timeless. The multi-layer set designed by Bryan Stevenson was colorful and fun to look at, and I appreciated the cleverness of how the beauty salon, chairs, and mirrors were set up to provide for lots of different stage pictures in a static set. The lighting, also by Stevenson, beautifully illuminated the colorful choices in the set, costumes, and makeup, enhancing Annelle’s and Clairee’s bright lipstick and Shelby‘s big, beautiful blue eyes. As a native of Louisiana myself, I appreciated the small touches grounding the action in 1980s North Louisiana, such as the "Maison Blanche" shopping bag.

The story tracks the lives, loves, and losses of this group of women across several seasons and years as they meet in the beauty shop to keep up appearances (as Truvy says, “There is no such thing as natural beauty.”) and catch up with what’s going on in their small town in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana. The characters are reminded by significant life events of their mortality and of what is precious in life, namely, their enduring friendship and the chance to love others and be loved during one’s life.

If, like my fellow theatergoer last night, you have not seen Steel Magnolias before, I won’t ruin it for you by revealing more. I’ll just say that you should definitely come and see this excellent show, which will make you laugh and cry in equal measure (just be sure to bring tissues). Tickets are available at Steel Magnolias runs through May 19. 

On with the show! 
Stacey Calvert

GeCamri Amberay as Annelle
and Shannon McGrann as Truvy

Olivia Cinquepalmi as Shelby and
Cara Serber as M’Lynn