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Theater review: Steel Magnolias at the Great Escape Stage Company

A picture of the Steel Magnolias cast
Randy Lake / Great Escape Stage Company
A picture of the Steel Magnolias cast: Sarah Stiner (Shelby) is in the center, with (L to R), Maddy Curry (Annelle), Joan Saber (Truvy), Elinor Marsh (M’Lynn), Laura Cochran (Clairee), and Gail Snyder (Ouiser).

The Great Escape Stage Company in Marshall, Michigan is currently staging “Steel Magnolias” through October 30.

Through stage and film many theatre goers are now familiar with Robert Harling’s 1980’s script about a resilient group of women in a small town in Louisiana.

Great Escape’s production of “Steel Magnolias” succeeds because it delivers humor, pathos and insight into the web of support surrounding the six female friends depicted in this moving story.

Keys to success here are the portrayals of vibrant and colorful characters frequenting Truvy’s beauty parlor, a center of gossip and cosmetic enhancement for surrounding Cinquapin Parish.

The opening night performance began slowly, as the first scene seemed to lack pace and was burdened by line lapses and missed cues. Fortunately, the production soon kicked into high gear with the welcome, comic intrusion of Ouiser, played by Gail Snyder. Snyder creates a character who lives up to the reputation of one who has “been in a bad mood for 40 years.”

an overhead shot of the beauty parlor set with the cast
Randy Lake / Great Escape Stage Company
The beauty parlor set

This eccentric loud-mouthed neighbor’s rant about the treatment of her dog and the pilfering of Magnolia blossoms off a nearby tree yielded a glimpse into the eccentricities of the surrounding community and its connection with the parlor’s staff and customers.

Joan Saber, as Truvy, brings a comic take to the role of the nosy, but attentive beautician, who presides over the play’s welcoming, supportive, single setting, where secrets are shared and lasting friendships are made and sustained.

The events of the play center around the marriage of young Shelby Eatenton and the subsequent birth of her child. Complicating Shelby’s plans is her Type 1 Diabetes and her physician’s admonition against having the child she desires.

Sarah Stiner, as Shelby, delivers a winning portrayal of a young bride determined to start a family. By the end of the first act when she announces her pregnancy, she has the heartfelt support and best wishes of all those around her—all save one: her mother, M’Lynn.

Elinor Marsh, as M’Lynn, succeeds in walking the delicate line between proper concern for her daughter’s health and her wish for Shelby’s happiness. She tests Shelby’s backbone and challenges her judgement in the play’s major confrontation.

Marsh displays remarkable emotional range particularly in the play’s conclusion. The centerpiece of the final scene is M’Lynn’s magnificently constructed spoken aria, in which playwright Harling pulls his lead character, cast, and audience headlong through the stages of grief. As the play ends, few eyes remained dry, including those of this reviewer.

Credit here also goes to two supporting players who stand beside M’Lynn in time of need. Laura Chochran, as the ebullient Clairee, provides space for the audience to breath and laugh as she offers the curmudgeonly Ouiser up for mock sacrifice to M’Lynn’s anger.

Maddy Curry’s charming beauty technician, Annelle, comforts M’Lynn and other parlor patrons with poetic imagery from a heavenly plane.

Curry’s character initially seems insignificant to the play’s story line. As the play progresses, however, Annelle’s quiet personal journey and growth is marked by a number of hair styles, hair colors, interests, avocations, as well as lifestyle and spiritual changes.

Over the years I’ve seen “Steel Magnolias” several times on the stage and the screen. In this production, perhaps due to Christine Andrews’ staging, I found myself watching Maddy Curry’s Annelle. And I noticed that this character epitomizes transformation: Not only the physical transformation that takes place in a beauty shop, but the inner transformation that Annelle undergoes. And finally, the grief transformation that all are challenged to undergo when faced with the loss of one held dear.

I’ve also come to a deeper appreciation of Robert Harling’s script as a play about transformation. And it’s transformation that’s frequently at the heart of a good story, good writing and good theater.

A former station manager of WMUK, Gordon Bolar is now the station's theater reviewer.
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