Left to right: Wendy Maples, Liliana Talwatte (seated), Marci Anne Wuebben and Dagmar Krause Fields in "Steel Magnolias." Photo by Daren Scott
At first blush, “Steel Magnolias” would seem to be a leisurely tale about six Southern women just sittin’ around and talkin’ in a small-town hair salon. As anyone who’s seen a production of Robert Harling’s 1987 play (or the 1989 film adaptation) will tell you, it’s about much more than that. Woven into the gossip and interpersonal business of life in fictitious Chinquapin, Louisiana, are warm reflections on friendship and sacrifice.
Backyard Renaissance Theatre’s current staging of “Steel Magnolias” directed by Anthony Methvin demonstrates a keen appreciation for the play and its richly drawn characters. This is accomplished by letting the narrative unfold at its required relaxed (if at times dawdling) pace and by allowing the cast to establish its chemistry over time.
Done and done.
Truvy (Wendy Maples) is the anchor of “Steel Magnolias,” proprietor of the salon and earnest purveyor of advice for all. At the opening of the play she’s taken on a young, eager-to-please assistant, Annelle (Claire Kaplan), who is nervously guarding secrets. The gossipy Clairee (Dagmar Kruse Fields) is a regular presence at Truvy’s as is M’Lynn (Marci Anne Wuebben) and her daughter Shelby (Liliana Talwatte). The caustic Ouiser (Annie Hinton) pops in and out, armed with tart remarks and harmless grousing.
The first sign of unease in the otherwise friendly confines of Truvy’s comes with Shelby’s preparation for her wedding – and her mother’s unsolicited advice about anything related to it. The M’Lynn-Shelby relationship will prove to be the crux of “Steel Magnolia’s” drama and the nexus of its poignancy.
Talwatte, underutilized in Backyard Renaissance’s production of “Abigail’s Party” earlier this year, endows Shelby with a sweetness – but not a sugariness – that makes her easy to root for. In the play’s most complex characterization, Wuebben beautifully navigates the most emotional of “Steel Magnolia’s” waters.
The fact is, all these characters are likable in their own way, and thankfully the script isn’t overburdened by each of them having substantial back stories. The enigmatic Annelle comes closest, but her conflicts are shunted off into born-again gesturing.
Kaplan, so alluring and exciting as Picasso’s model in OnStage Playhouse’s recent production of Charles Borkhuis’ “Blue Period,” shows her versatility with “Magnolias.” She’s the outsider who becomes an insider, not unlike what playwright Harling may have wanted for audiences.
Its vivid characters aside, “Steel Magnolias” does demand more than a degree of patience from us. These women may hurry their opinions but they don’t hurry their stories. The atmosphere inside Truvy’s is loving but languid. On opening night at the 10th Avenue Arts Center downtown, the temperature outside was near 90 and it couldn’t have been much cooler inside until the A.C. kicked in, an inconvenience that the folks at Backyard Renaissance earnestly apologized for.
Then again, the swelter fit the play. While fanning yourself, if you closed your eyes you could almost smell the magnolias abloom.
“Steel Magnolias” runs through Sept. 17 at the 10th Avenue Arts Center, downtown.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.