Steel Magnolias

Studio Theatre    Studio Theatre, Salisbury Anne Waggott 9 July  2023

It was my absolute pleasure to review Studio Theatre’s dress rehearsal of Robert Harling’s semi-biographical play, Steel Magnolias, made more famous through the 1989 film version of the same title. The original play focuses on the main female protagonists, with the men only referred to and present off-stage, thus making it a popular production for amateur dramatic groups and societies; there are often many more women than men amongst the available actors!

In Steel Magnolias, six Southern women show their strength and resilience as they bond over the shampoo and curlers in a local beauty salon, forging unwavering friendships that hold fast through the joys and challenges of life and death.

With fitting preshow and scene change Country music, a beautifully painted view through the window of a great looking salon, (dressed in an excellent array of accurate and appropriate props), and the cast wearing the fashion of the day, the audience should be instantly transported to a small Louisiana town in the 1980s. Visually, this was a really good start!

And yet this is so much more than ‘just’ an aesthetically pleasing production. Although it’s a play I’ve seen a number of times over the years, as well as being familiar with the film, this production has given me a fresh insight and appreciation for the narrative, while the intimate Studio Theatre venue ensures a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ perspective for the audience, so that they become party to the characters’ secrets, arguments and supportive friendships. Set in Truvy’s salon and focusing on the shifting dynamics in the mother/daughter relationship between M’Lynn and Shelby, this is an ensemble piece which has been sensitively and thoughtfully directed by Anthony von Roretz, with different set levels put to excellent use to create interesting groupings.

At the heart of the story is the relationship between the six women, and at the heart of this production are the performances of the six actors.

Samantha Luckman was superb as M’Lynn, whether being overprotective or accepting of her daughter’s decisions, or grief-stricken at her overwhelming loss. In her debut Studio Theatre performance, Lynnette Barnes showed great promise for future performances as she embraced Shelby’s character, ranging from a giddy excited bride, through the anguish of her body’s ‘failings’, the extent of her medical condition (Type 1 diabetes), and her passionate determination to have her own child. I admit, I hadn’t appreciated that Harling had written Steel Magnolias as a tribute to his sister who had also died from complications of Type 1 diabetes following the birth of her own son, and as a way to ensure that her son would know who his mother was and that she would be remembered. The heartfelt, comical and yet poignant performances from both Samantha and Lynnette are a worthy tribute to Harling’s sister.

There is strong ‘support’ from Caroline Butcher, delightfully pithy as Clairee, and Sue Tranter as the curmudgeonly Ouiser, both with a great aptitude for comedy as well as ability to portray pathos.

Jenny and Liv Wordley translate their real-life mother/daughter relationship to that of salon owner Truvy and her new apprentice Annelle, with Jenny delivering her dialogue in a deadpan fashion to show Truvy’s dry sense of humour, and Liv taking the audience along with her in her journey from skittish newcomer to good-time girl, then zealous pillar of the local church community, in a convincing and endearing manner. It’s not easy to do intricate stage business, such as creating intricate hair designs, with the amount of dialogue and need to keep accents authentic as required here, but Jenny and Liv should both be commended for maintaining their hairdressing skills throughout!

Pace was essentially good and steady throughout, with valiant attempts at authentic Southern drawls that, for the most part, were accurate and consistently maintained across the cast; however, there were also some nervous hesitations during the dress rehearsal where some did slip back into their native British accent as they recalled their lines. As a dress rehearsal, there were still some inevitable glitches to smooth out, but I have every confidence that the presence of a receptive audience will help cast and crew achieve the high standards Studio Theatre has become renowned for and which this cast and crew also deserve.

The warmth, frailties, spirt and humanity of these female characters have been vividly brought to life through the performances of these six actors, and it would take a heart made of steel to not feel empathy for their characters through their excellent storytelling. Life may be as fragile as the easily bruised magnolia blooms in Ouiser’s garden, but the protagonists’ personalities are as strong as steel.

Steel Magnolias runs until Saturday 15 July at 7:30pm each evening – just remember to take some tissues… you may need them!