Invincible Women: STEEL MAGNOLIAS at The Firehouse Theatre

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Steel Magnolias: say the play title to a random longtime theatre critic and watch the jaw clench with “Do I have to sit through another production of this syrupy soap opera?” emblazoned across the face. Firehouse Theatre presents a dignified, intimate version of the play at its Farmers Branch venue through February 7, with comfy, cushioned, tiered seats just installed to enhance viewing pleasure. Directed efficiently by LIP Service’s Jason Leyva, this production strikes an understated heartfelt chord, balancing humor with pathos in a never-forced, natural way. At the show’s conclusion on first Sunday’s matinee, a nearly full house, tears flowed readily in cathartic unison. If you’ve never seen Steel Magnolias before or you want to revisit it, this is a poignant, honest production worthy of its playwright’s honorable intentions.

Written over a 10-day period in 1987 by Robert Harling, as a tribute to his sister Susan who died of early diabetes, its characters are based on real people from Harling’s hometown Natchitoches, Louisiana. Even though Harling wrote about women who could be funny even dealing with tragedy (“They all love one-liners and they talk in bumper stickers, and they’re sharp, funny women”) nobody in that original 1987 Off Broadway stage production knew they were performing a comedy until the first few audiences told them otherwise. What gives the work its longtime appeal? Maybe the unique, homespun combination of humor and pathos, the “steely” resilience of women supporting each other through tragedy and the innate reality of the human life arc presented, keep the old girl fresh “on the boards”. Firehouse Theatre’s Steel Magnolias makes it a viable, entertaining live stage performance.

The key to the play’s success lies in the truth of its characters and the believability of the arcs they follow. Sometimes the show is directed to focus on the laughs, rather than allowing the humor to rise up out of each character’s will as coping mechanism in the face of tragedy. One of Leyva’s strengths as a director is his ability to help actors find an essential kernel of truth in their roles and to use that kernel as real catalyst to develop their characters’ arcs. This play spans three years’ worth of events as seen from a Southern small town beauty parlor. In each of the three scenes that follow the expository opening one, every actor reveals palpably logical growth and a believable deepening of core relationships as the tragedy emerges and sweeps over them. All grow in love and strength and achieve a noble closeness, honoring the life of the one who dies and the dignity of the human experience. Alexandra Cassens plays the young bride and mother with diabetes, not making her a caricatured saint but simply allowing her saintly inspiration to shine through her spunkiness. Suzy Dotson’s Clairee provides most of the comic relief of the show with well-timed wisecracks that foster accord. Dayna S. Fries as Truvy, the beauty parlor owner, borrows some style from Dolly Parton’s portrayal in the 1989 film, but brings to the role her own sparkle and veracity. High school senior Taylor Donnelson creates a wide arc of realistic growth in ushering Annelle to life, the insecure, abandoned girl-wife who finds Jesus, a good husband, a baby and a valid life of her own within the loving confines of Truvy’s beauty parlor. Toughest roles in the show are the grumpy, cussword-snapping Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine in the film) and M’Lynn (Sally Field in the film), mother of the diabetic girl. It’s so easy to stereotype or caricature these two pivotal characters. Both undergo massive changes to rise above flaws or sorrows by play’s end. And the script leans hard towards soap opera here. LisaAnne Haram never lets Ouiser’s sharp tongue make her one dimensional, so as she softens and humanizes throughout the play she brings the audience close into her “gruff” warmth. Jenny Tucker creates a beautifully nuanced portrayal of a wise, mature mother and empathetic woman in M’Lynn, one aware of her own strength but not afraid to show vulnerability in the face of tragedy. She’s a woman full of life’s vitality because she is truly a magnolia made of steel. Costumes by Ryan Matthieu Smith reflect the cheery and startling aspects of the 80’s setting effectively, particularly on Dayna S. Fries. Wigs and hair by Logan Coley Broker and Mia Leavel tend to overwhelm and could use some help in fit to be less distracting. Jason Leyva’s set design and props convey the 80’s milieu very clearly, and the use and placement of beauty parlor equipment maintains the sense of locale without ever blocking audience view. Sound by Danica Bergeron and lighting by Branson White.

One of the most beloved films in the US market in 1989, Steel Magnolias remained in a top ten box office grossing spot for sixteen weeks, with overall gross receipts of $135,904,091.00. Six months after the play opened Off Broadway, senior film director Herbert Ross (“Funny Lady”, “The Sunshine Boys”) was hired to direct the movie in Harling’s hometown and assembled an A-List cast of actors, including Sally Field and Dolly Parton, plus one relative unknown, the 23 year old Julia Roberts. Ultimately, Roberts received the film’s sole Oscar nomination. Before the studio announced the film’s casting, Harling found himself invited to Bette Davis’ New York City apartment, where she announced she would like to play Ouiser and have her friends Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn cast as M’Lynn and Clairee.

Steel Magnolias runs through February 7. Purchase tickets online at http://www.thefirehousetheatre.com, via phone at 972-620-3747 or in person at the box office one hour before curtain. Curtain 7:30pm or 2:30pm at matinees. Watch the Firehouse Theatre Facebook page for special discounts and incentives.

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