Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Steel Magnolias is set in the mid-1980s and, while it isn't completely autobiographical, Harling based the characters and plot on people and events in his life. The play focuses on six strong Southern women who reside in a fictitious Louisiana town. All of the action takes place in Truvy's home beauty salon (formerly her garage) where her customers stop by to get their hair done, gossip, exchange recipes, and talk about the events in their lives.
The plot begins when bride-to-be Shelby and her mother M'Lynn stop by Truvy's to get their hair done for Shelby's wedding later that day. The recently widowed Clairee and the cantankerous Ouiser, who lives next door to M'Lynn, also stop by. To help her out around the shop, Truvy has recently taken in the shy, nervous Annelle, who isn't very forthcoming about the events in her past, which adds to the drama. The story follows this group of tight-knit friends over a three-year period as the events in their lives, both comical and tragic, play out.
Harling's play is well-crafted, with six characters who are three dimensional, rich and realistic and plot elements that represent life experiences that most people have experience with. The dialogue is natural, fresh and hilarious at times and never cloying, even though there are several moments that will tug at your heartstrings.
Director Jere Van Patten has found a crackerjack cast of six strong and gifted actresses who bring these loveable characters to life. He does a phenomenal job staging the action in Hale's in-the-round space so the audience never feels they are missing out on anything in the plot while also being drawn into the plight of the characters. His pacing works quite well to ensure the jokes and comical lines get big laughs while the dramatic scenes are packed with emotion. All six women in the cast portray realistic relationships and a natural chemistry with each other as if they've known each other for years.
There isn't a weak link in this cast. As M'Lynn, Linsey Maxson is reserved and opinionated at first, but once we learn that Shelby is diabetic and M'Lynn is constantly concerned for Shelby's health and welfare, Maxson's actions make complete sense. M'Lynn is the voice of reason in the play and Maxson is excellent in the role, especially in how she portrays M'Lynn's emotional outburst toward the end of the play. Amy Jo Halliday is absolutely wonderful as Truvy, the woman who has so much love for her friends and who is always trying to keep everyone happy. I last saw Halliday as Diana in Next to Normal two seasons ago and with the thick Southern accent, quick comic timing, and funny body language she uses as Truvy, you'd never know it was the same actress. That's how good she is. Shelby is a young woman who is stubborn, always upbeat, energetic and optimistic and who tries to live her life to the fullest and Meg Farnsworth is a glorious and glowing firecracker of movement and energy in the role. As Clairee, Kandyce Hughes is elegant and refined with a clear depiction of this wealthy woman who isn't sure what to do with herself now that her husband has died. Hughes also allows us to see how Clairee changes and grows once she realizes there is a world still left to explore outside of being the former mayor's wife and beyond the small town. Beth Anne Johnson is hilarious and an absolute steamroller who doesn't let anyone or anything get in her way as Ouiser, the cranky, loud and cantankerous, but entirely lovable, woman with a rough exterior that is just housing a big heart underneath. Kamie Tierce hits all the right marks to beautifully portray Annelle, the shy, quiet girl who is new to town but who learns to speak for herself as she becomes more independent.
Brian Daily's set design perfectly depicts the former garage that's now a salon, and the costumes by Tia Hawkes and Corrin Dietlein are unique and character specific so they beautifully portray the differences in these very different women. Cambrian James' hair and wig designs are excellent, especially as the styles for the women change over the course of the play. McKenna Carpenter's props and Van Patten's staging combine to superbly depict the normal activities in an operating hair salon.
With strong, lovable women who care for each other, Steel Magnolias is a powerful drama but also a hilarious comedy that shows the importance of having a close group of friends to help tackle and overcome whatever obstacles life throws your way. Truvy states that "laughter through tears" is her favorite emotion and you will most likely find yourself laughing through tears due to the wonderful cast, beautiful direction, and perfect creative elements in Hale Centre Theatre's production of this crowd-pleasing show.
Steel Magnolias runs through July 27, 2021, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling 480- 497-1181.
Producers & Casting Directors: David & Corrin Dietlein
Cast: (in order of appearance)