‘Steel Magnolias’ Dazzles With Authenticity (Extended Review)

Rafael Alfonso, Content Editor

WARNING: Very light spoilers ahead

“I know these women.”

As I sat there in the Francis Booth Experimental Theatre and as I left it, those four words kept repeating in my head.  

“I know these women.” 

I know each of them as if they weren’t fictional characters that only lived for those two short hours onstage. I know their actresses as if each of them had personally whispered in my ear during intermission all of their most intimate secrets. When the play ended, I had the chance to speak to the actresses after the show, and I had to hold myself back from bear hugging them and talking to them as if they were all my childhood best friends.

That is not an easy effect to achieve. I’ve done my time onstage and seen/written my share of shows, so I know this in my bones: director Leah Turley and her cast and crew have achieved a kind of magic on that stage that’s all at once hilarious, heart wrenching and definitely worth seeing.

Admittedly, though, the cast and crew start with a bit of an advantage by virtue of the brilliant writing of “Steel Magnolias” courtesy of Robert Harling. The story follows six women in several “slice of life” scenes as they wrestle with ideas like womanhood, faith and living with a chronic disease. 

There’s Truvy, the owner of a popular local salon; Annelle, who’s new in town and Truvy’s latest hire; Clairee, the former mayor’s wife; Ouisser, the town’s curmudgeonly millionaire; Shelby, a young woman who refuses to let her diabetes keep her from a fulfilling life, and M’Lynn, a local therapist and Shelby’s caring yet firm mother.

While generally a comedy (and a great one at that), the show does not shy away from more dramatic and even tragic moments. The audience can start a scene laughing out loud because of Shelby and M’Lynn’s bickering over Shelby’s choice of “blush and bashful” (two shades of pink) for her wedding color, then go wide-eyed as Shelby slumps in her chair and has a diabetic seizure onstage.

Still, the play intends to serve as a glimpse into these women’s lives. One of my favorite scenes that achieved that very well came in Act II when everyone onstage is gossiping about someone they all know coming out as gay (led by Clairee’s dramatic retelling of the whole thing) and making fun of Ouisser for possibly engaging in a new romantic relationship. The gossip had no impact on the plot itself, but it played a vital role in really heightening this feeling of intimacy I felt throughout the play. Not to mention, it was one of the funniest moments in the show for me. 

The set and the use of the experimental theatre get the ball rolling from before the show even starts for that intimate effect. There are no walls to Truvy’s salon by virtue of the experimental stage’s open design. The audience sits within arms reach of almost every corner of the set, as if they were in the salon themselves. I personally had to resist fidgeting with the beautiful flowers that wreathed the workstation in front of me.

And they were beautiful. Everything was, really. From the massive magnolias adorning the back curtain to the various fans and magazines and other trinkets—each delicately placed on the different parts of the set—scenic designer Mike Murphy has created a space that does not scream femininity, but instead states it forcefully with a coquettish smile on the side.

The same goes for the costumes as well. Each new outfit the actresses wore in each scene told me something new about their characters while also matching the tone of the upcoming scene without giving too much away. Costume designer Olivia Trees made every character eye-catching, and I sometimes wanted to watch the actresses not for their performances, but just to be jealous of how good everyone looked.

The lighting, meanwhile, only helped to highlight (pun definitely intended) all these details. Everything popped like high-definition television, but, ironically, the moment that really stood out was when there was the least amount of light onstage.

When the fuse box went out in Truvy’s salon (not the actual fuse box of the real life theatre), lighting designer Lang Reynolds made it look as if daylight were streaming in through the windows. That lighting gave the conversation between M’Lynn and Shelby an intensely intimate mood that lingered with me even after the lights came back on. 

However, the lights, costumes and set can only do so much.  

One of the first characters the audience meets is Truvy played by Kendra Williams, who provides a solid foundation for the whole show to build off of. She embodies that forceful yet coquettish femininity presented in the set that is meant to be her salon. She walks—almost sashays, really—with wrists limp at her side as if she is where she belongs (whether that’s in the salon or onstage is up for interpretation). She speaks with a friendly yet sarcastic voice, which suits the character in most situations.

Also onstage when the audience meets Williams’ Truvy is Eliza Aulick’s Annelle. Unlike Truvy, Annelle is not a stable sort of character in the beginning. Aulick develops Annelle, however, skillfully over the course of the show. She establishes key physical traits for her character in the first scene: fidgeting hands, anxious eye contact and hurried walking that stay relatively the same even as Aulick becomes a more confident version of her character, shown mostly in her tone and voice. It is almost as if Aulick plays two characters over the course of the show, a transition she pulls off quite convincingly. 

Aulick and Williams also work well together to highlight one of the other major feats of the show: the hair work. Both style the hair of the other actresses live on stage while in character in every sense of the word. Aulick, as the new girl Annelle, looks like her life depends on the work she does half the time; meanwhile, Williams, playing the owner of the salon, does the work with a practiced yet casual kind of focus. At no point does the hair styling distract the audience or the actresses, but instead it becomes a normal part of the experience as everyone really were just spending a day in the salon. 

The other cast members pull off feats of their own, however, without having to style hair. Like Sierra Lutz as Clairee, who maintains a strong stage presence throughout the show. She is almost always reacting in character onstage, with withering side-eyes and bemused smiles to herself befitting a woman who’s seen it all as Clairee has. Lutz also has a talent for drawing laughs out of lines that, on paper, shouldn’t have been funny. The way she emphasizes and stretches out certain lines had me laughing harder than some of the actual jokes in the show. 

Samantha Phalen as Ouisser is also a force in every scene she’s in. Phalen has the disadvantage of usually entering scenes after they’ve already started, giving her the challenge of having to match the energy her cast has already built up until that point. She rises above this, though, and actually elevates scenes with this commanding presence that she’s given to Ouisser. With her hands frequently on her hips, her snappy use of props and a perpetually impatient tone befitting a woman with “more money than God,” Phalen becomes both someone I wouldn’t want to know in real life and someone I couldn’t help but watch in awe. 

Together, she and Lutz display this incredible convincing dynamic built on jokes and jabs—both spoken and unspoken—that only two life-long friends can share (as Ouisser and Clairee are meant to be).

Stealing the show, though, is Amelya Bostic as Shelby. From her vocals to her physicality to her stage presence, nearly every aspect of her performance develops Shelby before the audience’s eyes into this charming young woman coming into her own. Her struggle to assert her independence to the authority figures she’s grown up with is one many on Marshall’s campus can likely relate to, and Bostic does an excellent job drawing out the drama in those scenes without coming across as whiny or immature. She convinces the audience that she can indeed handle what the world has in store for her, making her impact on the show and audience all the more profound. 

That impact, though, would not fully hit home without Nikki Riniti’s devastating rendition of M’Lynn, Shelby’s mother. All of her lines are colored with this deep sort of caring for everyone around her, but especially for her daughter. In fact, Riniti and Bostic share an impressively convincing mother-daughter dynamic, especially when considering Bostic is only a sophomore and Riniti is a junior. 

Riniti on her own, though, somehow manages to carry herself with the energy of a much older woman, a woman who has accomplished much—as a mother, as a therapist, as a wife—but can’t help being just a little tired after doing all that. That world-weariness and that deep caring then all come to a head at the end of the show in a scene that nearly brought me to tears and gives the audience something to leave the theater with that they won’t soon forget.

Each of the actresses brings their respective character to life in stunning three-dimensionality. They all make excellent use of the set, props and costumes, and they create an atmosphere where I often couldn’t tell who was going to speak next or when a sound cue was going to play. 

This overall stunning performance made minor mistakes slightly more noticeable. When the characters talk on the phone, for instance, they often don’t pause long enough for an actual conversation to be taking place. Additionally, while the actresses’ accents are very believable and impressive, they sometimes make certain lines difficult to understand. This is not helped by the actors having to project their voice to fill the theatre, which sometimes resulted in lines delivered in stilted or unnatural sounding tones. 

At times, dialogue felt scripted rather than natural, either because pauses between lines were too long or too short or because of the aforementioned vocal issues. Other times, I wanted to see more range in the actresses acting and voice, especially during more dramatic scenes. The show is generally a comedy, so the characters as written do not often express or experience negative emotions. As a result, the actresses can grow used to delivering their lines in a certain, comedic way; however, that mode of speaking sometimes dulls the drama of more emotional scenes or lines, making me crave more emotional depth from the actresses’ performances in those moments. 

Still, despite all those minor critiques (because, truly, those issues were a rarity), Marshall’s “Steel Magnolias” is the kind of experience that is all at once thrilling and profound; it is the kind of experience only high quality theatre can produce. 

I strongly encourage everyone to see the show this upcoming week from Feb. 22-25 at the Francis Booth Experimental Theatre in the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center. Tickets are free for students with a valid MU ID, $20 for general admission and $15 for seniors age 60 and older and for Marshall employees.