Female-driven comedy ‘Steel Magnolias’ hilarious at Allen Theatre while marking a historic collaboration between Cleveland Play House and Playhouse Square
By Bob Abelman
Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias” at the Allen Theatre, is a mani-pedi of a play — an estrogen-driven, southern comfort comedy set exclusively in Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Chinquapin Parish, La.
The drawling dialogue revolves around local gossip, recipe exchanges and Shelby. Shelby (Allison Layman) is an endearing, headstrong young woman whose diabetes and disappointing marriage lead to personal setbacks, medical complications and tough-love doled out by her ever-vigil but adoring mother, M’Lynn (Erika Rolfsrud).
The play also features the salon owner Truvy Jones (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse), her born-again assistant Annelle (Devon Caraway), and a duo of lovable and devoted locals — Clairee (Charlotte Booker) and Ouiser (Mary Stout) — who come in for a wash and a rinse, but stay to dish and offer astute observations about life and love.
Throughout the play, these women share in Shelby’s pain and pleasure and, by doing so, invite us to do the same.
“Steel Magnolias,” which premiered Off-Broadway in 1987, will be familiar to those who’ve seen the 1989 film starring Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah and Julia Roberts or the 2012 remake on what has become the natural habitat for sisterhood stories like this: the Lifetime Channel.
But this particular production is also historic, for it is the first time the Cleveland Play House has mounted a co-production with Playhouse Square. This means that a show featured in the KeyBank Broadway series, which typically caters to productions of national tours and has more than 32,000 subscribers, has been built in Cleveland for Clevelanders.
And it is likely the first time the Play House has featured an all-female design team (Vicki Smith, scenic; Jen Caprio, costume; Jennifer Schriever, lighting; Jane Shaw, sound), spearheaded by local director and Play House artistic director Laura Kepley.
Also momentous — and, perhaps, testimony to the thriving state of professional theater in Cleveland — is that, on an opening night that coincides with an NBA playoff game that could (and did) launch the Cavs into the finals, there was a large audience with significant male representation.
And this is not an easy play for some men to love. Its preponderance of personal disclosure tends to exclude any man in the audience not willing to be one of the girls for a few hours. As if to punctuate this point, as well as bolster the notion that these women are the strong and independent Southern belles suggested in the title, the men in the play are merely talked about and never make an appearance.
What makes this play so very entertaining and appealing is that the writing is filled with clever, country-fried witticisms and hilarious one-liners, and the characters are affable and absolutely charming. When they are played well, both their gentility and inner-strength ring true.
They are most certainly played well in this production — all six women are clearly defined and always interesting — but gentility tends to take a backseat to strength in this female-driven production, which comes with some pros and cons.
Consider M’Lynn, the emotional anchor who puts on a brave face when dealing with her daughter Shelby’s fragility. Because all the characters in this production are played with a heightened sense of resiliency and strength, actress Erika Rolfsrud’s portrayal of M’Lynn’s female fortitude gets heightened even more. She comes across as overbearing, which is unattractive and unrealistic in a play set in Dixie in the 1980s, when feminism has yet to make its way from the Northern states.
Yet, when M’Lynn finally has an emotional outburst toward the end of the play, the floodgates open so wide that the intensity of the hurt, the rawness of Rolfsrud’s expression, and the naked honesty behind the other actresses’ reactions — under Kepley’s sensitive direction — is extraordinarily overwhelming.
Also hit and miss are some creative choices made regarding the show’s production values.
Kepley has opted to swap out the scripted prerecorded radio music and voiceovers between scenes for Emily Casey on guitar and Maggie Lakis on ukulele/banjo, who also provide the narrative. This adds immense charm to the proceedings and makes the minor set changes nearly invisible.
Not so covert is the makeover given Truvy’s Beauty Shop, which is expansive and over-accessorized in order to fill the vast Allen Theatre stage. Foliage runs along the lattice work of the proscenium arch, so that the set resembles a picture postcard sent from Chinquapin Parish rather than a modest backwoods Louisiana enterprise.
This is a minor concern, really. Particularly for a production that manages to make its patrons — including the men — feel the cotton balls between their toes and joy in their hearts by the play’s end. CV
WHAT: “Steel Magnolias”
WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Aug. 21
TICKETS & INFO: $10-$80, call 216-241-6000 or visit clevelandplayhouse.com
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 29, 2016.
Lead image: From left, Erika Rolfsrud (M’Lynn), Allison Layman (Shelby), and Elizabeth Meadows Rouse (Truvy). PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni