Jo Garcia-Reger as a slightly reluctant Shelby in the arms of her mother M’Lynn, Carolyn Conover.
The Crossroads Repertory Theatre at Indiana State University in Terre Haute invites us to an intimate visit with the ladies of Truvy’s beauty shop in Chinquapin, Louisiana circa 1983. Rinse and set, permanent waves, manicures and conversation are the order of the day for the town’s movers and shakers. There’s the shop’s owner and guiding spirit Truvy who stoutly maintains that “there’s no such thing as natural beauty.” Shelby, the bride to be in a long running battle with her mother M’Lynn and with type 1 diabetes. Clairee who misses her husband, the mayor and being the mayor’s wife. … She’s the one who repeats the age old formula, if you don’t have anything good to say about someone come sit next to me.
Annelle is a new worker and member of the community with a bit of a past. At the beginning of the play, she’s married but husband, car and clothing are all missing. And Ouiser, the community curmudgeon and tom boy old lady. When she arrives with a sack of tomato that neither she nor anyone else wants, Ouiser stoutly maintains that old ladies like her are supposed to be digging in the dirt. The men are either long gone or absent.
I did briefly patronize a beauty shop with a wash, cut and advice on blow drying, but quickly retreated to a more traditional shop so I can’t speak from any inside information, but everybody at Truvy’s seemed to be fully occupied with their various tasks and treatments. The gossip, the humor and the insights into their more than examined lives flows in this production directed by Lauren Morris. The placement of the show in the Dreiser Auditorium instead of the New Theatre is actually an advantage. The audience feels more together and the focus is more on the stage and the show itself.
Steel Magnolias is a tragicomedy. It was Robert Harling’s first play inspired by and a celebration of the life and death of his own sister to the disease that kills the play’s Shelby. It’s also a celebration of the lives of the women that Harling grew up with. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know these women again. They’re a very charming bunch with lots of angles, depths and stories. The repartee is fast paced and frequently very funny. At the same time, there’s a bit of an edge because early on the severity of Shelby’s condition is dramatized and later when she announces to her mother that despite the doctor’s warnings she’s pregnant we share the mother’s shock, dismay and anger
There are some social insights from the 1980s in the play. Apparently track lighting and some names have come to be connected with gay culture in a humorous way. Clairee’s nephew comes out. She’s surprised but warmly supportive and at the same time there’s a general feeling of live and let live acceptance. Annelle’ s enthusiasm for Christianity gets a bit of criticism as the spectrum from Baptist to Presbyterian is considered, but also gets a bit of gentle critique with again a general feeling of laisse faire.
The Crossroad’s Repertory Theatre’s production is a strong one. I never doubted for even a second that scenic designer Eric Barker’s beauty shop wasn’t the real functioning thing. Michelle Souza’s costumes from trousers to dresses, from a bed jacket for Shelby to those gardening knee pads for Ouiser supported the stories. Truvy played with authority by Eileen Earnest and Annelle, just seem to be a couple of old pros totally comfortable with their work and the customers that they’re working with. Until she gets loose on decorating Emily Wirkus’s Annelle is a little hesitant, but gradually comes to be a very confident and even challenging member of the group.
Julie Dixon, as Claree makes a very sympathetic figure as a woman seeking a new role following the death of her husband. Susan Monts-Bologna couldn’t be more perfect as the critical Ouiser. Jo Garcia-Reger makes a wonderfully touching and involving figure as the doomed Shelby. Carolyn Conover as the mother, overcome with grief but working so hard to ignore or rise above it is a passionate piece of potently moving theatre.
There are more chances to see the Crossroads Reportory Theatre’s production of Steel Magnolias in the Dreiser Theatre on June 28 and 29, and July 18, 21 and 26.
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker