Beth Fowler and Kelly Bishop
in Steel Magnolias
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Beth Fowler and Kelly Bishop
in Steel Magnolias
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Without question, Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias is one of the most popular plays of the past three decades. It ran 1,126 performances at Off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theatre from 1987 to 1990, was turned into an all-star 1989 film starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts, and received a 2005 Broadway revival headed by Christine Ebersole, Marsha Mason, and Delta Burke. Plus, the show gets regional and community theater revivals pretty much everyday and everywhere.

Now the show has returned for the second time to the Paper Mill Playhouse, where it remains an accessible light sitcom-cum-tearjerker. Luckily for the audience, director Karen Carpenter has resisted the urge to overplay the script's jokes or physical comedy at the expense of the storytelling.

The entire play takes place within the cozy, confined quarters of Truvy Jones' beauty shop, which looks rather like a reconverted garage. While there, the women gossip and trade barbs -- but the main plot centers on the battle between protective mother M'Lynn (Monique Fowler) and daughter Shelby (Kelly Sullivan), who is determined to get pregnant despite suffering from life-threatening diabetes.

At Paper Mill, the green tile of Hugh Landwehr's set extends beyond the orchestra pit and into the audience at an angle, helping to make the production feel a bit more intimate. That the play, meant more for a black box than a cavernous auditorium, does not feel lost on the Playhouse's vast stage is more than impressive -- it's downright miraculous.

But the set, of course, plays second fiddle to the six ladies on stage. Charlotte Booker, who plays Truvy, gets the privilege of indulging in decadent 1980s neon colors in David Murin's costume design. She also gets to sport the poofiest hairdo of the lot. Kelly Bishop, the original Sheila of A Chorus Line, brings a street-smart, authoritative touch to the group as Clairee, the former Mayor's wife, and Beth Fowler is a harried delight at playing neighborhood curmudgeon Ouiser Boudreaux.

Meanwhile, Kate Wetherhead, who played a dozen roles in Broadway's Legally Blonde -- including the frustrated young gal who frames her stepmother for murder -- adds another arrow to her quiver as 19-year-old beauty assistant Annelle Dupuy-Desoto. Wetherhead's character morphs into a different personality in each of the play's four scenes, going from a scared, childlike gal in overalls whose criminal husband just deserted her, to a flirtatious southern belle, to a Jesus freak who kneels to pray at the turn of a hat, to a pregnant, slightly wiser Jesus freak.

In the end, this Steel Magnolias is as it is truly meant to be: a compelling tale of sisterhood and motherhood that offers great roles to a lucky six-woman ensemble.