From an all-female creative team comes the Guthrie’s version of Steel Magnolias, written by Robert Harling. While many of us have probably seen (and cried during) the movies, this version, featuring Narelle Sisson's resplendent rotating carport/hair salon is both challenging and uplifting. It will make you cry and, hopefully, think.
Like so many ensemble pieces, the fun of Steel Magnolias is the many different character arcs at play. Salon-owner Truvy (Austene Van) gives Annelle (Adelin Phelps) a hairdressing job on the day of Shelby’s (Nicole King) wedding. Shelby’s mother M’lynn (Melissa Maxwell), along with her friends Clairee (Amy Van Nostrand) and Ouiser (Sally Wingert) also go to the salon, enjoying the time together and the chance to talk/gossip. Following Shelby through her first couple of years of marriage, the play takes a tragic but predictable turn, leaving M’lynn heartbroken and in need of her friends’ love. Set in the 1980s, the costuming by Kara Harmon is simply scrumptious.
The full play takes place in Truvy’s Salon, with a projection of a tree marking the different seasons. The salon is a refuge for and by women in a world that is decidedly not. The women in the salon do not have to account for their time or goings on while in the salon (their husbands and lovers don’t, bless, ask them what they get up to there). In the confines of the salon, the central characters get ready to face Life Events. It seems an almost universal right of passage, and looking around at the audience, you have to imagine almost every woman in the audience had our mothers apply our lipstick, spray our hair, and let us wear a grown-up piece of jewelry. She would then look at us in the mirror and tell us we were now ready to face whatever was coming. It can be hard to separate beauty and preparedness from patriarchal control (i.e. the insistence that we make ourselves attractive for men), but the world the steel magnolias inhabit seems to suggest the opposite: feel nourished in the comradery of your fellow women, let them touch your hair and your face and tell you you are ready, then go out to face all the hard things the world might throw at you. At the end of the day, it's not the hairspray that makes you ready, it's how the hairspray makes you feel about yourself. It is these remembrances and their associated tender feelings that make Steel Magnolias a consistent crowd-pleaser. Essentialist? Probably. Touching? Certainly.
In the script, within the confines of the salon, all of the women (regardless of socio-economic status) are treated the same. This sameness is, of course, a fiction: abandoned Annelle and breadwinner Truvy do not belong to the same social class as their more well-off clients. But the salon itself (and its focus on female friendship and motherhood) acts as an equalizer; while they inhabit the salon, all these women are the same and all receive love from one another.
This is where I come to the part of this staging that has given me the most to think about: Lisa Rothe’s integrated cast, which is quite rare for this play; the well-known 1989 movie of the same name had an entirely white cast and was followed by a 2012 remake with an entirely black cast. Having spent time in the south, I was at first very skeptical of the idea; when I lived in Georgia in the mid-2000s, I never saw a salon integrated the way Truvy’s is supposed to be in 1980s Louisiana. It doesn’t help that the script provides next to nothing for this type of reading. Watching this version, I couldn’t help but wonder about over-correcting the past and trying to make a non-political script into something it just isn’t. I worry that these types of historical inaccuracies wash out the past and imply historical wrongs did not take place.
However, if, as I mentioned above, the salon becomes a safe and equalizing place where women can all be together against the world, I think this decision starts to make a bit more sense. It points to the idea that we can be friends without the world’s prejudices getting to us. It also reminds me of the critiques leveled by second and third wave feminists: white women have historically excluded women of color from the bonds of sisterhood. There is no easy answer to this, and I don’t think this script is the correct one to try to tackle these important questions. The closest thing to a resolution I can find is that these actresses excel individually and cohere beautifully as a group; seeing them work together points towards the better future we must strive to create.
With her infectious smile and charming obstinance, Nicole King as Shelby could go head-to-head with Julia Roberts any day. As the tragic heroine of the piece, Shelby’s insistence on getting her own way can often come off as spoiled or thoughtless. Instead, King transforms Shelby’s naivete into a foil. Pushed and pulled by demands from the outside world (including, most importantly, what Shelby thinks is expected of her as a woman), Shelby strives to set her own terms, regardless of the cost. Melissa Maxwell as M’lynn inhabits a secondary tragic trajectory -- that of the survivor. Here Maxwell does a particularly good job with a book that tends towards the melodramatic maudlin. I particularly enjoyed the way she moves -- she exudes confidence and grace but utterly lacks the unknowing jubilance of her daughter. M’lynn is cautious, caring, and always worried. Together, King and Maxwell deliver a deeply moving picture of the tension and fierce love between mothers and daughters.
While Shelby and M’lynn exist in a relationship forged by blood, the foregrounding of Truvy and Annelle’s relationship is an excellent reminder that mothering relationships can also be formed. Truvy’s interest in and championing of Annelle are nothing short of maternal. Van delivers a wonderful performance -- it is easy to imagine her vivacity as the major ingredient to her salon’s success. Phelps also does an admirable job playing up Annelle’s kind and mousey characteristics. Funny and a bit gooberish, it's clear why Truvy is drawn to Annelle and wants to help make her life better. Rounding out the cast, Wingert’s Ouiser is charmingly tactless and enjoyably rude, while well-to-do Clairee (played by Amy Van Nostrand) is the picture of a southern lady. In a play that world-builds with chatter and good-natured ribbing, they are essential and a pleasure to watch.
In sum, take your mother, aunt, granny, best friend, your best friend’s mother, your sister, really anyone you love and want to make cry, to Steel Magnolias, which runs until December 15th. Afterwards, drink some wine and talk about crushing the patriarchy.