The Cache Theatre Company celebrated the Year of the Woman last weekend with the premier of its production of Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias.”
As its title implies, the play is a tragic Southern comedy of manners that uses an all-female cast to explore the remarkable resilience of the human heart in the face of adversity. Set in the 1980’s, “Steel Magnolias” is dated but the play’s message about the strength of sisterhood is timeless.
“Steel Magnolias” unfolds in a beauty salon in a small town in Louisiana. On four momentous occasions over a period of three years, six intimate friends gather there ostensibly to gossip, trade recipes and share makeup tips. In reality, their supposedly casual meetings are collective therapy sessions that help the women cope with the ups and downs of everyday life.
Although the play is definitely a tearjerker, “Steel Magnolias” rises above the level of mere soap opera due to the authenticity of the characters that Harling has penned and director Marianne Sidwell has assembled a winning ensemble cast for this production.
Jennifer M. Birchell plays Truvy, the proprietor of the salon who is a caring friend to her customers despite her tart tongue and breezy manner.
Kathleen Bateman is M’Lynn, a professional therapist and socially prominent woman-about-town who can handle anything but her daughter Shelby.
CTC veteran Elizabeth Spencer is back as the aforementioned Shelby. As a headstrong young woman pursuing marriage and motherhood even at the risk of her own health, Ms. Spencer’s characterization is the perfect mix of Southern belle and spoiled brat.
Cathy Neeley and Sandi Gillam share the spotlight as the play’s comedy relief. Ms. Neely warmly portrays Clairee, a wealthy widow who is the much-needed voice of reason at Truvy’s beauty parlor, while Ms. Gillam delivers an over-the-top performance as the cantankerous biddy Ouiser.
Finally, Kensie Beus plays Annelle, a newcomer to the beauty shop who gradually evolves from a lost soul into a self-assured expectant mother under the influence of her new friends.
As previously mentioned, “Steel Magnolias” is very much an ensemble show and Ms. Sidwell’s six heroines selflessly share the stage during the first three quarters of the play. The final scene belongs to Ms. Bateman alone, as formerly icy-calm M’Lynn melts down into gut-wrenching hysterics over a family tragedy.
Hats off to Susan Ryan Carpenter for backstage artistry. Her styling of the cast’s hair and wigs not only helped to recapture the 1980s setting of “Steel Magnolias,” but also changed throughout the play to highlight the passage of time and the evolution of the performers’ characterizations.
At first glance, “Steel Magnolias” seems like the perfect gender-centric vehicle to observe 2020 as the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. In retrospect, however, there’s a bit of unintended irony in the text of this show.
While the play has no male performers on-stage, the cast’s conversations portray their spouses as stereotypical chauvinistic Southern men. The joke is that Harling’s characters are themselves the kind of female stereotypes we condemn nowadays – the cynical businesswoman with a heart of gold, the over-protective mother, the Southern belle, the wealthy widow with too much time on her hands, the eccentric busybody and the fundamentalist nut. Good-hearted as it is, Harling’s script for “Steel Magnolias” still isn’t sufficiently nuanced for 21st Century scrutiny.
The CTC production of “Steel Magnolias” will continue at the Utah Theatre on Center St. through Feb. 17th.