Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
But, unlike the lily-white Truvy's of Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias that first appeared on stage in 1987 and on the star-filled, big screen of 1989, the Truvy's on the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley stage is Black-owned with a clientele and staff of Black, white, and Asian women. The result is a play that in its original form could easily be viewed in 2023 as a bit dated–even with all its guaranteed laughter and tears, given Harling's script both punchy and poignant–but has been given a make-over that provides fresh-looking spark, spunk and spirit.
On this particular Saturday morning, Truvy is quickly orienting her new hire, Annelle–an extremely shy, pipsqueak-sized, Asian woman barely twenty years old–who arrives just in time to help ready the regulars for the big wedding of the day. M'Lynn's daughter Shelby is getting married, and all is abuzz and atwitter as they, the recently widowed and town socialite Clairee, and the grumpy grouch Ouiser all saunter in to get their hair tossed and teased. The vigorously alive chatter scans the town for the latest bits of news and comment about anyone and everyone ("When it comes to suffering, she's right up there with Elizabeth Taylor") or to offer pointed commentary about the times ("This is the '80's; if you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a past."). But much of the talk is about Shelby's big day, a wedding to be decorated in the bride's favorite colors of pink-tinted "blush and bashful," or as her mother M'Lynn describes, "a sanctuary ... hosed down with Pepto Bismol."
Amidst all the joking, laughter and excitement, the first hint of clouds to come appears when Shelby has a hyperglycemic attack just as Truvy is about to strand her newly towered hair with baby's breath. Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias in just ten days, after his sister had died of diabetes-related complications following the birth of her only son; the play is a tribute to her and the women of his town who supported his family.
Casting director Jeffrey Lo has assembled a terrific cast of six who bring much humor and heart under the direction of Elizabeth Carter, who ensures a snappy pace full of a first act's harvesting of many laughs and a more measured tempo of a second act coming to grips with a vibrant life robbed too soon. Acting almost as the story's emcee is Lisa Strum's Truvy, who presides over her salon with flair and style, ready to dish out tidbits of gossip and to hear the details of any hint of romantic goings-on. Her bright-eyed, animated expressions are topped off by a smile that radiates, and as she scurries around the salon, it is almost as if she is constantly performing her own upbeat choreography.
While Truvy has two sons, the newly arrived Annelle quickly becomes like a daughter to her. The initial shyness of Annelle soon gives way to newfound creativity, boldness, and a mind-of-her-own in this women-only oasis where she has landed after being quickly abandoned by a man she claims may or may not be her husband. Alexandra Lee's high-pitched but hushed voice and tiny presence soon grow louder and bigger as Annelle finds God in her church, and safe and accepting sanctuary among these women in the salon–a transformation made greater by the casting of her as a young Asian woman in a deep-South community of Blacks and whites.
Marcia Pizzo's Clairee always arrives dressed in heels and designer wear, a woman of means with social and political standing in the town, who has a "smart mouth," a "sweet tooth," and a craze for anything football related. "If you don't have something nice to say about someone, come sit by me and tell me all about it," she reminds her friends, while once again sharing her cuppa, cuppa, cuppa recipe of sugar, flour, and fruit cocktail baked to three-cup, gooey perfection and topped with ice cream, claiming, "And it's not too sweet."
Clairee is also one to take on sour-puss Ouiser, portrayed forcibly with a raspy voice and a stomp-around presence and hilarious effect by Nancy Carlin. Ouiser admits, "I have been in a very bad mood for forty years," and says to her amused friends in a combative way, "The only reason people are nice to me is because I have more money than God." Ouiser's outside is as hard as a hickory nutshell, but the love for her friends eventually betrays an much softer and sweeter inside.
Jasmine Milan Williams' Shelby is bubbling over in excited anticipation of the next chapter in her life, of someday "just getting old with someone." She exudes optimism and confidence, even as her mother M'Lynn (Dawn L. Troupe) hovers worriedly over her, still treating her as the young girl she must protect from the dangers of her lifelong fight against diabetes.
When Shelby gets pregnant, M'Lynn's worry borders on anger, knowing the high risk for her outwardly strong, inwardly vulnerable daughter. The mother-daughter, often rival relationship portrayed by these two actors becomes ever more stunning and moving as events worsen for Shelby, with a mother's willing sacrifice and grief portrayed in a long-to-be-remembered, emotionally shattering performance by Dawn L. Troupe.
The engaging and entertaining raillery as well as the more serious turn of events take place as the work of beautifying proceeds, in times good and sad. The setting designed by Andrea Bechert is an inviting, brightly colored, fully functioning salon that appears to have been picked up and moved intact from this Louisiana town to the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The open, outer beamed ceiling reveals the massive trees of the bayou, with the beautifully varied lighting of Steven B. Mannshardt painting hues of a natural landscape and the cheerful ambiance of the salon itself. Dana Rebecca Woods' costume designs bring laugh-out-loud humor to Ouiser's choice of floppy hats and weirdly striped pants, country club aristocracy to Clairee's fashion wear, a flash of flair and flamboyance to Truvy's choices, and well-chosen elegance to M'Lynn's more distinguished, well-coordinated look. Destinee Steele and Ashley Wise's designed wigs are stars themselves, adding as much import to the play's authenticity as the various Southern/Louisianan dialects the actors sport, thanks to dialect coach Kimily Conkle.
Not only does this mixed-race cast with a Black-owned business provide a different take on what a 1980s story could look like if replayed today, the story also reminds us that in the '80s–even before such mixture of friendships racially was common in the South–it was still acceptable for there to be deep friendships among those who were evangelical Christians and those more unbelieving, something increasingly rare these days. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of Steel Magnolias not only speaks loud of the strength of sisterhood among all women, no matter how different they are from each other, but it also reminds us of the potential power that women in their sisterhood have of placing politics, religion, race, background, and social status in the backseat along with the men who are often the ones propagating such prejudices the loudest.
Steel Magnolias runs through July 2, 2023, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. Masks are required of all patrons on Friday, June 16th at 8 p.m.; Saturday, June 17th at 2 p.m.; and Saturday, June 24th at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, please visit theatreworks.org.