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The Barter Blog

"Steel Magnolias" Reviewed by Bonny Gable

June 11, 2018

“Steel Magnolias” by Robert Harling

Review by Bonny Gable

Philosophy and beauty salons go together like ice and tea. At least in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana they do. And the six women you meet there in Barter Theatre’s production of “Steel Magnolias” by Robert Harling will win your heart and teach you a thing or two about life along the way. As beloved as the 1989 movie is, the stage play from which it was derived is truly a treasure not to be missed. This version offers the rich and undiluted dialogue of the original script, which the playwright rendered from a true story in his own life. A story that makes you laugh out loud as well as cry real tears. A roller coaster ride may be a cliché, but it best describes your journey.

The wealth of easy banter amongst these women has the lilting melody and lively rhythm of a Louisiana bayou ballad. Bits of Southern wisdom and zesty one-liners are volleyed about with the swiftness of a ping-pong match. The entire action of the play takes place in Truvy’s Beauty Salon, as it should because it is their sanctuary. Here they seek refuge from their male counterparts — who love shooting birds and hunting furry creatures — and discuss everything from “fashion courage” to religion to rumors of gay men’s penchant for track lighting. As they speak the women often look into an imaginary mirror, and talk to each other “in the mirror.” They are never afraid to face each other, to look into each other’s soul. These ladies, “from whom no secrets are hid” may tease and dance around the fact that they have a secret — it’s a ritual they are obligated to perform. But all is eventually revealed, and not from any malice but because they are too bonded to bear anything that separates them.

Through expert direction by Katy Brown these six actresses have bonded and created a world where we are invited into their fold, at least to eavesdrop on their tales of fate and fortune for a little while. We feel that we share in their joys or pain as if we were just another of Truvy’s customers.

The opening scene hits the ground running with Kim Morgan Dean as Truvy and Sarah Laughland as Annelle. “There’s no such thing as natural beauty” may be Truvy’s motto, but these two actors are natural beauties in their roles. Watching the brassy but bighearted Truvy take the sweet but flighty Annelle under her wing is inspiring to behold, and Dean and Laughland portray it with truth and heart. Realism does not daunt them. Hair is washed, curled and upswept with expertise by their nimble fingers right on the stage, making it look like like they’ve been doing it their entire lives.

Newcomer Zoe Velling is instantly captivating as Shelby, a role more challenging than it first appears. The seemingly self-indulgent ingénue, prattling on about her signature color and parties, is in truth anything but. Shelby lives to spread love – to family, friends, babies or strangers – and Velling captures her spirit with an honesty that endears her to us. Tricia Matthews as Clairee is wonderful as the forever “First Lady of Chinquapin Parish.” She is the epitome of the gracious and sophisticated Southern belle who underneath the polish is just as earthy as Ouiser and as giving as Shelby. Carrie Smith Lewis plays M’Lynn, Shelby’s loving mother who — in true Southern style — worries enough for the both of them. Lewis makes it crystal clear that M’Lynn’s love for her daughter is boundless. When she breaks into her monologue in the second act, be ready to have your heart wrenched in two.

Things definitely fire up when Mary Lucy Bivins, reprising the role of Ouiser, steps into the shop. Bivins is an absolute delight as the loveably brash, earthy and honest Ouiser. She may be blunt with her words but she is stalwart in her compassion and support of her fellow womenfolk. When the chips are down, you want Ouiser in your corner. Hana Lee’s realistic set is wallpapered in peaches and cream colors with knickknacks on the walls, white wicker furniture, and window dressings as pouffy as Annelle’s hairstyles when she’s nervous. It is an actual working salon complete with styling chairs, a sink with running water, and a wonderful hooded hairdryer where you could loose yourself in a warm wind tunnel of solitude. But it is solidarity rather than solitude that these women seek, and Lee has created a totally feminine and inviting nest where they come to nurture one another.

The delightful 1980s outfits selected by costume designer Lee Martin indelibly define each character. Whether it’s Annelle’s high heels in bright orange, Clairee’s perfectly coordinated pants outfits, Ouiser’s tack suits, or Truvy’s Christmas ensemble of purple tights, white boots and spangled sweater paired with a denim skirt — these ladies rock the look with panache. High kudos go to wig and makeup designer Whitney Kaibel. From Clairee’s stunning silver waves to the long, permed curls of Truvy and Annelle the wigs and hairstyles are stars in their own right.

In Tony Angelini’s sound design country music frames the performance, and subtle tunes quietly drift from Shelby’s pink radio providing a comforting element of sultry Southern warmth. Andrew Morehouse has created lighting that fits every mood. Especially poignant is the sunshine that pours through the generous double windows, letting us know there is a world outside the shop that needs coping with. Perhaps this is the best lesson about life that we take away from these lovely Southern ladies, who prove both delicate and strong. At a time when divisiveness seems to take the lead in our communities, having a fortress of solace and a group of fellow humans to help hold us together would indeed be a comforting thing. Maybe even a necessity.

In the immortal words of the Christmas Festival banner, “I heart Chinquapin Parish” and so will you. “I’d rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special,” declares Shelby. Barter’s “Steel Magnolias” offers two hours of wonderful, all yours for the taking.

“Steel Magnolias” runs through August 11.

For tickets and information: 276-628-3991 or