Steel Magnolias: Strong Women Armed With Wit, Words & Scissors at Stages Repertory Theatre

The setup:

The comedic drama that portrays Southern women as wittier than the Algonquin Round Table and more warmhearted than a petting zoo is revived in all its iconic glory at Stages Repertory Theatre.

The execution:

The ultimate "woman cave" is the beauty shop, where hair can be let down in more ways than one, as information about the goings-on of locals can be gathered and disseminated. Here it is the former carport of Truvy, converted by her husband into a beauty parlor so she "could support him."

As Act I opens, Truvy is hiring Annelle, younger and eager to please, to help her do hair. M'Lynn and her daughter Shelby arrive for their tonsorial treatments, and we discover the inevitable conflict between two strong personalities, a controlling mother and a strong-willed daughter. They are affluent, but the even wealthier Clairee enters for her appointment -- she buys a radio station in the course of the events -- followed by Ouiser, self-described as "richer than God." This is the cast, and what a cast it is! Articulate, faster with a quip than a quick-draw artist, with big hair and personalities to match.

The direction, by Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin, is virtually flawless, and he has found a cast to match the direction. It is ensemble acting of the first order, each character etched vividly yet realistically integrated into the milieu of a small town in Louisiana.

The first act allows us to meet and savor these ladies and their witticisms -- M'Lynn, Ouiser and Clairee are the most verbal -- and playwright Robert Harling displays inventive brilliance in the sallies. Harling also adds drama, based on some medical difficulties of Shelby, but McLaughlin and his talented cast achieve sentiment and skirt the shoals of sentimentality as drama unfolds in Act II. Even here, the laughs are plentiful, and the theme of "smiling through the tears" is developed adroitly and with panache.

Holland Vavra Peters plays Shelby -- the role with the greatest range -- and she provides (in addition to stunning beauty) a nuanced performance that invites us in to share her life. Sally Edmundson, recently seen at Stages in the two-hander The Unexpected Man, plays M'Lynn and captures both her nurturing needs and her disappointment at her strong suggestions not being heeded. Susan Koosin, who starred recently at Stages in The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, is excellent as Ouiser, a straightforward, outspoken diamond-in-the-rough personality; she brings a refreshing note of non-gentility to the proceedings. Genevieve Allenbury is excellent as Clairee, and Shelley Calene-Black plays Truvy and finds her easy grace and warmth. Rachael Logue guides us sympathetically through Annelle's transformation from ugly duckling to incipient swan.

The comic timing of this cast allows the wit of Harling to shine in all its brilliance. I can't say enough about how funny this play is -- the humor stems from both verbal surprises and character-driven situations. I can't imagine not exiting walking-on-air after an evening with these ladies -- if I could find their mythical town, I'd move there.

The verdict:

Even if you've seen this comedic wonder, see it again, as the humor is fresh and timeless, the wit inventive and the characters so memorable that the mind will reel with pleasure.

Steel Magnolias continues through August 19 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information or ticketing, call 713-527-0123 or email info@stagestheatre.com.

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