Steel Magnolias: Like Chekhov with Hairspray

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

Playwright Anton Chekhov wrote to Maria Kiselyova in 1887, "Not a cosmetician and not an entertainer. (A writer) is a man bound by contract to his sense of duty and his conscience … the writer should be just as objective as the chemist." How apt a statement when compared to a play set in a beauty salon.  Like Chekhov’s troubled Three Sisters, we follow six women in Steel Magnolias through their challenges and triumphs. Steel Magnolias is set in a beauty salon in Louisiana where six women share their lives and loves from a spring wedding, to Christmas family gatherings, through a tragedy, to their meeting on Halloween.

Playwright Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias as a tribute to his sister’s death from complications arising from diabetes in 1985. Shelby in the play is the story of his sister. This 1987 play became a Hollywood film in 1989. The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, is presenting it as the first play of its new season, and it is a winner. Actress, novelist, and director Marsha Mason has avoided all the pitfalls of a static one-set production by clever movement and inventive staging. Audience attention never flags due in large part to tight direction and an uncommonly strong cast.

Patricia Richardson becomes the focus of much of the play as Shelby’s mother. Richardson (as M’Lynn) drives much of the action as she discusses Shelby’s upcoming wedding, marriage, child-bearing, and lamentation over her surviving her own daughter.  Richardson is a fine actress who was totally believable in a demanding role where comedy and tragedy are all in the mix. Shelby (Clea Alsip), her daughter, is the catalyst which changes every character’s life before her untimely death. It is she who convinces Clairee (deftly played by Susan Sullivan) to buy the radio station after her husband dies. Shelby arranges an old flame to meet Ouiser (a fine performance by Jessica Walter).  Annelle (Lucy De Vito shines in a performance where she makes what could have been a caricature into someone we care about) meets her future husband when he tends bar at Shelby’s wedding. Shelby also suggests to Truvy (Elaine Hendrix in a bravura performance) that the newly-arrived Annelle move into the empty rooms Truvy has in her home.

Steel Magnolias is the perfect play to see this summer. It runs until June 18.

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Photographer: JOAN MARCUS

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