A new bloom

Steel Magnolias returns to Human Race Theatre

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: [l-r] Carolyn Popp, Christine Brunner, Caitlin Larsen, Julia Geisler, Patricia Lindart and Maretta Zilic perform in Steel Magnolias through Nov. 29; photo: Scott J. Kimmins

Sally Field is not one of the “Steel Magnolias” on stage at the Loft Theatre this month and she isn’t needed. This 2015 cast and director have made the show their own.

Comparisons with the film and possibly with previous productions may be inevitable, but they can never be equivalent. Theatre brings a focus and an inclusive intimacy with the audience while movies can add more characters, more settings and sites and more augmentation, emotional music. They show us. Stage plays invite us to bring our own visualizations and imaginations.

Playwright Robert Harling wrote about his sister’s life and death in what he called a “ten day tsunami,” and didn’t quite know what he had when he completed it. What he had was a 1987 play that had a good Off-Broadway run, a star-filled movie in 1989, a 2005 Broadway revival and numerous professional and community theatre productions over the last 25 years.

The women of Truvy’s Shop form a sensitive performing ensemble, and portray that essential thing that women do all over the world: they care about each other deeply. They are accepting, willing to offer advice—even when it may be unwelcome—and each has a manner and personality as varied as her hairstyle. They may be quick and clever with fast-flying wit or a sweet demeanor covering inner strength. They always have shoulders made wide with empathy, generously offered.

Director Heather N. Powell has brought a fresh, bright approach, acknowledging she never saw the play or the movie. Nor has Scenic Designer Eric Moore. Together they infuse sunshine necessary to grow magnolias.

Powell keeps the dialogue fast paced and snappy when it needs to be, and gives appropriate stillness to the poignant emotions of the final scenes. She takes advantage of Moore’s wide-open set, managing characters effectively.

That the six-person cast operates as an ensemble reflects a sure directorial hand, when the script could become a sort of series of star turns. Powell keeps a thoughtful balance.

Not only has Moore used every inch of stage space available to make Truvy’s shop as if from a former garage, but he’s made sure to incorporate electricity for hair dryers and water for shampooing, and found pretty magnolia wall paper as well as hand-painted looking individual magnolias on a fabric door valance and window curtain.

Christine Brunner is Truvy. She owns Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Chinquapin, Louisiana in every possible way, bringing determined cheerfulness, peacemaking and acceptance for her friends. It is the place to go for comfort and emotional safety. Her well-done self-mocking comments on her own life cover a sense of desperation over her responsibilities. She adds a little hip-twisting fillip to such observations as, “There is no such thing as natural beauty.”

And there is no such thing as professional actresses from different origins coming together in Ohio who happen to know the same southern Louisiana accent. A dialect coach, Deborah Thomas, is credited. She has helped them create a consistent softened voice, not offensively extreme.

Truvy and Annelle (Maretta Zilic) had to learn hair styling techniques.

M’Lynn (Carolynn Popp) and her daughter, Shelby (Julia Geisler) are the focus of the story. M’Lynn is the professional woman, often irritated by her unseen husband, especially when he spends the morning of their daughter’s wedding shooting birds in their garden trees. Bride Shelby tries to ignore her severe diabetic problems while her mother worries. They snip at each other in that way families do, to cover the anxiety.

Popp does justice to the final scene ranging from brave, through anger to honest grief. It’s a scene that could be mush, an actor’s challenge and privilege when done well, as she does. For some of the audience, tissues may be required.

Geisler brings her form of the steel and the magnolia to the younger woman, determined to bear a baby, against medical advice and the habits of her husband and his fine-ole-southern-family’s insight free mindset: “shoot it, stuff it or marry it.”

The steel is honed to sharp-edged blades in the characters of the very crabby Ouiser, Caitlin Larsen and football-crazed Louisiana political widow, Clairee, Patricia Linhart. They have some of the sharpest whip-quick dialog performed with delightfully skilled comedic timing. They may be having the most fun, too.

Maretta Zilic completes the ensemble as Annelle, frightened young woman trying to escape a crooked husband. She is warmed by the acceptance at Truvy’s where she gets a job and undergoes the most change. Zilic can do a lot with a big-eyed innocent look, as do others following Powell’s well directed silent reactions.

The Human Race did this show in 1989 and again in 2001 and with this run hopes to reach new, possibly younger audiences.

Janet G. Powell has dressed the women in the worst and the best of the ’80s: Truvy in bright flowery sunshine colors, M’Lynn in tailored narrow belted shirt dresses, bride Shelby in flowered jumper and later in then stylish buffalo checks, Annelle goes from wild girl to pious matron, Ouiser for comfort, Clairee for drama.

Sound Designer is Brian Retterer. Lights by John Rensel, Production Stage Manager is Kay Carver and Tara Lail is Producer.

The Human Race Theatre Company presents Steel Magnolias through Nov. 29. For tickets, times and more information, please call 937.228.3630 or visit humanracetheatre.org.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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