Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Steel Magnolias
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Song of Summer and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Nicole King, Adelin Phelps, Sally Wingert, Amy Van
Nostrand, Austene Van, and Melissa Maxwell

Photo by Dan Norman
Starting in 1987, Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias has had a continued presence in American popular culture. The play, equal measures comedy and drama, premiered Off-Broadway in 1987 and, after a transfer, ran for nearly three years and also toured the country. The 1989 movie version was a box office and critical success, with big stars Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, and Daryl Hannah. Since then it has floated about, showing up regularly in regional and community theater. A revival was mounted in Broadway in 2005, and in 2012 a television film version with an all-black cast was shown on the Lifetime channel.

When the Guthrie announced last spring that Steel Magnolias would be the first play of the 2019-2020 season to appear in its McGuire Proscenium Theater, the logical question was: What about this thirty plus year old commercial hit, known by most people from the movie with its starry cast overshadowing the material, would make it of interest to audiences in 2019? What would the Guthrie, to whom theatergoers turn for high-definition productions of classics, burnished renditions of old chestnuts and incisive new works from our leading playwrights, do with a not so old but no longer new, mid-tempo, sentimental piece?

I shouldn't have worried. Under director Lisa Rothe's adept orchestration of characters, narrative, and physical production, this Steel Magnolias demonstrates a solidly written play with endearing characters, big laughs that come from the heart, and sensitive handling of pain and loss, that is able to give audiences a rarified view of the gift of genuine community and deep friendships. That's exactly what happens on stage at the McGuire, and it is wonderful.

Harling based Steel Magnolias on the experiences of his own mother and sister in the small Louisiana town in which he grew up. Here the town is called Chinquapin, the setting is the 1980s, and all the action takes place in one of those great, informal gathering places that are the crucibles of small-town life, Truvy's hair salon. This unpretentious beauty parlor is in a carport Truvy's husband enclosed so she could run her business from home. We meet Truvy as she hires a new assistant, Annelle. Annelle is new to town and seems to be extremely naïve, yet hints at harboring a dark past.

Two of the town's wealthiest women of a certain age—Clairee, whose late husband was the town's mayor, and Ouiser, whose two marriages left her with a tidy sum—seem to visit Truvy's daily. Clairee has a bright and wicked sense of humor, and Ouiser is the town crank. As she herself states, "The only reason people are nice to me is because I have more money than God." These two dear friends hide their affection behind bickering and put-downs. For example, when Ouiser arrives at Truvy's uncharacteristically cheerful, Clairee asks "Ouiser, you sound almost chipper. What happened today—you run over a small child or something?"

It's a special day at Truvy's because salon regular, M'Lynn's daughter Shelby, is getting married that afternoon. Shelby has grown up under the watchful eyes of Truvy, Clairee and Ouiser. Both Shelby and M'Lynn will be in to have Truvy, who they would trust with their lives (or even more important, their hair) whip their tresses into a crown worthy of the occasion. High-spirited Shelby is thrilled to be getting married, despite the ease with which she rattles off her fiancé Jackson's faults. She is an obstetrics nurse and loves the little babies. More than anything, she wants one of her own. These women form the axis of a community that thrives in this safe space. Four women have known each other forever, Shelby has been raised under their communal watchful eyes, and new arrival Annelle is soon welcomed into their bosom.

The narrative spans a few years, with Christmas, Halloween, and summer decor to mark the passage of time. This community of women continues to strengthen as they endure hardships, celebrate joys, and face conflicts themselves, such as Annelle's emergence as a born-again Christian versus Ouiser's staunch, pragmatic utilitarianism. The strongest narrative strand throughout is the tension between protective M'Lynn and her headstrong daughter Shelby, especially over the issue of Shelby's health. The support of true friends through thick and thin is underscored tenfold—yet never feels overstated.

Harling also demonstrates how essential is a durable sense of humor. There are jokes—good ones—constantly inserted in the dialogue, and lots of funny bits, such as the armadillo-shaped groom's cake at Shelby and Jackson's wedding ("The icing is grey! How do you even make grey icing?"), the novel way a gay young man comes out to his conservative southern parents, or Annelle's sudden preoccupation with arts and crafts. If there were not a serious plotline running through, and moments of genuine heartbreak, Steel Magnolias could be described as an uproarious comedy. But the jokes are not just for our amusement; we see how they give these ladies buoyancy when trouble weighs them down.

The six actors who occupy the stage are a dream team, each and every one sublime. Austene Van is a life-force as Truvy, with a whisked blend of homespun wisdom and no-nonsense sass. Adelin Phelps, one of the Twin Cities' busiest actors making her Guthrie debut, is hilarious and touching as she brings life to the weird contradictions that mark Annelle's persona. Melissa Maxwell, also making a Guthrie debut after several impressive seasons at the Great River Shakespeare Festival, is deeply moving as M'Lynn, while Nicole King, in yet another Guthrie debut, conveys Shelby's indefatigable optimism and determination.

Amy Van Nostrand is wickedly droll as Clairee, who is learning to take pleasure in life after getting over the loss of her husband, and Sally Wingert could not be any better as Ouiser, convincingly revealing the heart of gold beneath her twisted sarcasm that takes no prisoners. The Louisiana accents required of all six women are authentically delivered, with credit due to resident voice coach Jill Walmsley Zager.

Narelle Sissons created a wonderfully homey and functional beauty salon—one can see the bones of a former carport. It sits on a turntable that spins 360 degrees during scene changes, providing a visual diversion while casting the gathering spot as a self-contained world where these women can be their authentic selves. Kara Harmon designed just the right costumes for each character, especially the comically frumpy Ouiser. The sound design work by Jane Shaw provides all the background noises needed, including echoing gunshots and a manic barking dog. Shaw also composed lovely themes that are heard between scenes. Cat Tate Starmer's lighting shifts to reflect both changing seasons and time of day.

Steel Magnolias holds up surprising well since its 1987 debut, in a pre-social media, ostensibly much more innocent America—though we hardly would have thought so at the time. In a warm and winning production, its humor scores bullseyes, its tenderness hits deep in the heart, and its stagecraft shines. I would have been happy for it to go on and learn more about how these strong southern women—with the outer grace of magnolias and the inner resolve of steel—handle whatever next turns up at Truvy's.

Steel Magnolias runs through December 15, 2019, at the Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $25.00 to $79.00. Seniors (65+) and full-time college students - $3.00 - $6.00 per ticket discount. Active military, veterans and their immediate families, 15% discount. Public rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, $20.00 - $25.00, cash or check only. For tickets and information, call 612-377-2224 or visit

Playwright: Robert Harling; Director: Lisa Rothe; Set Design: Narelle Sissons; Costume Design: Kara Harmon; Lighting Design: Cat Tate Starmer; Sound Design/Composer: Jane Shaw; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Voice Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Stage Manager: Jason Clusman; Assistant Director: Laura Leffler; Assistant Stage Managers: Katie Hawkinson and Jamie J. Kranz; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Design Assistants: Polly Bilski (costumes), Alexi Carlson (lighting), C. Andrew Mayer (sound).

Cast: Nicole King (Shelby), Melissa Maxwell (M'Lynn), Adelin Phelps (Annelle), Austene Van (Truvy), Amy Van Nostrand (Clairee), Sally Wingert (Ouiser).