How appropriate that on the weekend of the Women’s March, Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias opened on the Reno Little Theater stage. After all, this 31-year-old play with an all-female cast of six delves deep into the world of women to explore the issues we (still) confront, the demands and expectations (still) placed on us and the power of the love that (always) exists among us.
The 1989 film—the screenplay of which was also written by Harling—is a quotable, go-to chestnut, written as a tribute to Harling’s own sister, who—spoiler alert—passed away due to complications from type I diabetes. Set in tiny Chinquapin, Louisiana, in what the playwright called “the mysterious world where no men were allowed … the beauty parlor,” it’s the story of Shelby (played by Greer Kukuk), a young, diabetic newlywed who wants nothing but to have a child and live a normal life, and her mother, M’Lynn (Sandra Neace), whose concern for her daughter’s well-being battles constantly with her desire to see her daughter happy.
Making up their support system is Truvy (Jamie Lynn Woodham), the honey-sweet beautician who styles the hair of every woman in town and thereby has her finger on its pulse; Truvy’s new beautician, the shy, bible-thumping Annelle (Katie Hughes); Clairee (Moira Bengochea), a widow whose charming demeanor belies a wicked sense of humor; and Ouiser (Evonne Kezios), Chinquapin’s obligatory grumpy old lady with a heart of gold.
Though the play revolves around Shelby’s illness, little actually happens on stage. Rather, the drama unfolding is in the give and take of the personal details that become the community’s hottest commodities. Their conversations carry enormous weight—even more when the film is such a known quantity. At times, it feels like a series of one-liners you know are coming. Without question, you’ll laugh. But if you know the film, the laughs come more from memories of loving the lines rather than from the lines themselves.
One of the play’s biggest challenges is the Southern accent. As a person who spent the first half of her life in the South, I can tell you it’s a skill few actors, including most of this cast, possess. I cared because capturing the chatter of Southern women is critical to the story. Will non-Southerners care? Maybe not.
What’s impressive? Well, the hair, for one. Woodham’s ability to produce a complicated wedding updo on stage while solidly upholding her end of long, comedic conversations is nothing to sneeze at. (It doesn’t hurt that the gorgeous set is a completely believable, working salon.)
And though Kukuk’s accent may need work, Shelby’s dear personality is fully intact, all love and light and positivity.
Hands down the strongest moment is Neace’s powerful monologue in the final 10 minutes, delivered in the heart-wrenching language of a mother who’s lost a child. Every person in the audience wept, audibly, proving once again Neace’s incredible range and talent.
RLT’s Steel Magnolias will remind you of all the things you loved about the film, and it’s another in a recent series of reminders about the magic that occurs when women come together.