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Steel Magnolias

David Finkle assesses the Broadway production of Robert Harling's warm-hearted play about sharp-tongued women. logo
Frances Sternhagen and Delta Burke
in Steel Magnolias
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Delta Burke first perched on a Designing Women diva divan and swapped clever remarks with her sharp-tongued lady pals on September 29, 1986. Well, she's still designing -- only now it's hair -- as Truvy, a small-town Louisiana beauty salon proprietor, in Steel Magnolias. The slimmed-down and remarkably unlined Burke is charging for shampoos and blow-drys in the Broadway premiere production of Robert Harling's warm-hearted play about women who, yes, swap clever remarks with sharp-tongued lady pals. The comedy, which is infused with poignant highlights (you'll pardon the expression), was originally presented at the WPA in 1987, not long after Designing Woman first brightened the tube.

It would be inaccurate to say that either property was a strong influence on the other, but they are similar in their depiction of women bonding. (In Steel Magnolias, there's also the possibility of women blonding; that doesn't happen, but two ladies do go brown.) It probably wouldn't be insultingly off-base to say that, at bottom, the Harling play is also a sitcom, intended to make small, sometimes synthetic observations about life while not unduly disturbing viewers.

In Steel Magnolias, hairdos change with the seasons. (Wig designer Bobby H. Grayson had his work laid out for him and comes up trumps.) Attitudes change less frequently as, over the course of a few event-filled years, the easy-going Truvy welcomes regular or semi-regular customers M'Lynn (Christine Ebersole), her daughter Shelby (Rebecca Gayheart), Ouiser (Marsha Mason), and Clairee (Frances Sternhagen) for their appointments. Truvy, whose shop is competitive with the nearby Kut and Kurl and Beauty Box, is so much in demand that she needs an assistant, newcomer Annelle (Lily Rabe).

Most of the dramatic action, if it can be termed that, involves Designing Women-like conversation, but there is one potential complication in the play. Shelby, a diabetic who's about to get married in the first of the play's four scenes, decides in the second scene that she's going to go through with a pregnancy even though her doctors have told her that this is unwise. M'Lynn, who's also tending to her irascible husband Drum and two active sons, doesn't like Shelby's plan, but there's not much she can do about it. She can only deal with the consequences, which Harling unveils in the third and fourth scenes.

Little happens for the others. When two of the women grab each other's hair, it's not out of anger; it's simply business as usual. Truvy talks about her couch-potato husband. Clairee, whose late spouse was the town's mayor, buys the local radio station and realizes that she enjoys running it. The cranky Ouiser begins dating Owen Jenkins, while the nervous and timid Annelle crawls out of a bad marriage, dates a bartender, finds religion, and begins to proselytize.

Harling's lines give the play what tang and sting it has; many of the zingers curl hair more effectively than Truvy and Annelle can with their never-idle hands. The women are distinctive types, and Harling keeps their remarks true to each character while making the point that friends who hang out together long enough eventually develop a group sense of humor. (His funniest sally may be Clairee's remark: "The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.") It helps that everyone connected with Steel Magnolias looks as if he or she is having a high old time. This includes set designer Anna Louizos, whose beauty establishment is one big yet subtle sight gag; costumer David Murin, whose wardrobe runs the gamut from chic to chintzy; sound designer Ken Travis, who has located many a perky tune to broadcast from the crucial on-stage radio; and lighting designer Howell Binkley, who may have found himself putting lots of pink gels to use.

The actors, whom Jason Moore perhaps directed by cannily ducking out of the way, also seem to be having more fun than attendees of a Chinquapin Christmas Festival as they give us Harling's take on symbiotic female camaraderie. Christine Ebersole is the only one who gets to, umm, let her hair down in an emotional mad scene, and she's her usual tall, striking self from start to finish. Delta Burke has had years of preparation for her assignment, needless to say, and she couldn't be better. Marsha Mason's curmudgeon, one arm akimbo and glaring, is a hoot. Frances Sternhagen, out of last year's Foreigner flannels, has slipped smoothly into Southern silks. Rebecca Gayheart, a likely cover-girl prospect if ever there was one, is both sympathetic and savvy as Shelby, while Lily Rabe makes Annelle genuinely sweet rather than saccharine.

Though it's nothing more than an agreeable diversion, the production does stand out in a season that's unusually rife with all-male casts, not to mention plays and musicals wherein men hog the spotlight. Whatever the reason for the sudden emphasis on male bonding and non-bonding, the upshot of all the flaunted testosterone is that women who want to see themselves at least partially reflected on stage will find reassurance and satisfaction in the beautifully acted Steel Magnolias.

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