Southern comfort

Gothic North Theater delivers an enjoyable production of Steel Magnolias

Members of the cast of Gothic North’s <i>Steel Magnolias.</i>

Members of the cast of Gothic North’s Steel Magnolias.

Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias is often regarded as the consummate “chick flick” for the stage. Set in a Louisiana beauty shop, it features an all-female cast, which spends the entire play fixing each other’s hair, doing each other’s nails and gossiping about men, weddings, babies and the latest features in Glamour magazine.

But in subtle, wise ways, the women of Truvy’s Beauty Salon are talking about life, love, tragedy and making one’s way through it all with an intact sense of humor. Decades after it was written, the clever, bittersweet play continues to leave audiences laughing, crying and contemplating.

Gothic North Theater’s take on the wry comedy is lovingly delivered and warmly funny, featuring a likeable cast and a strong sense of atmosphere. The production sometimes falters, sometimes misses its mark and sometimes distracts, but in the end, Gothic North delivers a satisfying rendition of a satisfying play.

The play, set over nearly three years, never leaves the cozy beauty shop. As the characters are faced with both joy and sadness, the play deals with the way life marches on, the way women bond through it all and the way gossip from old friends and a fresh coat of lipstick can make just about anything bearable.

For the most part, that comforting atmosphere manages to get transmitted to the audience, another potential reason for the play’s popularity. In this production, especially, there’s something very warm and convincing about the world of the salon. As the women buzz about the shop with their gossip, their attitudes and their hair picks, you can almost smell the shampoo.

Particularly sparkling are the characters of the young bride and darling of the neighborhood, Shelby (Rachel Collette), and her mother, M’Lynn (Chris Miller). Collette is comfortable and poised on stage, thoughtfully delivering a character who is, in turn, serene and sassy. Miller is also able to present a well-rounded, complex character, whose emotional responses ring genuine, particularly in the last scene. As they interact with the charged dynamic of mothers and daughters everywhere, the two are consistently funny and very compelling.

Harriet Beaman gives an excellent portrayal of the outspoken Ouiser, an older woman who isn’t crazy but has just “been in a bad mood for the past 40 years.” Beaman delivers her lines with mastery, assurance and just the right proportion of dry wit, getting some of the biggest laughs in the show.

A noticeable quirk of this production: None of the cast members attempt that old Southern drawl. This may have been a wise choice—butchered accents can ruin otherwise flawless productions, and if the twang just isn’t happening, doing without is almost always a safer bet. However, Steel Magnolias is a play specifically about Southern women in all of their glory: about their strengths, their weaknesses, their indomitable sassiness. The themes, the jokes and the lines are distinctly Southern, and when delivered with flat Yankee precision, there’s definitely something missing.

Feeling comfortable with accents might have helped some of the play’s cast members feel a bit more at home in their character’s skins. At the performance I attended, some actresses forgot lines, broke character and seemed noticeably self-conscious as they moved about the stage. It’s sometimes unclear how old certain characters are supposed to be, and it’s sometimes unclear if the actresses themselves are quite sure: As the newcomer Annelle, the young Kathleen Erquiaga spends the first scene with salt-and-pepper hair and a mature demeanor. By the end of the play, she’s as bouncy as a teenager, sporting thick brown curls that fall around her shoulders.

In the end, though, these distractions are never really more than that, and they don’t detract from the play’s overall emotional impact.