Steel Magnolias reinforces the importance of female friendships


When Robert Harling sat down to write a play based on the life and death of his beloved sister, he initially envisioned it as a dark Southern tragedy. Little did he imagine that in telling the story of his sister, mother and their close circle of friends, the play – just like life – would seamlessly blend comedy and drama, capturing the hearts of generations of fans.

“Steel Magnolias” is that rare play that manages to shift effortlessly from comedic hijinks to heart-rending sadness without losing the audience – a feat The Alhambra Theatre & Dining’s new production accomplishes with ease. In the hands of The Alhambra’s expert cast, “Steel Magnolias” becomes a tribute to female friendship and the strength women draw from one another in times of joy and sorrow.

Set in Louisiana in the 1980s, the play centers on beautician Truvy and the women who frequent the beauty parlor in her carport. As the play begins, Truvy and quirky new assistant Annelle have their hands full preparing customers for that afternoon’s wedding of Shelby, the daughter of beauty shop regular M’Lynn. As Shelby and M’Lynn bicker over wedding details, the audience is introduced to Clairee – the recently widowed wife of the town’s former mayor – and Ouiser, a cantankerous neighbor who is beside herself over the racket Shelby’s father is causing by repeatedly firing off shotgun blasts to scare away birds before the outdoor reception.

While prepping and primping for Shelby’s big day, the women engage in good-natured ribbing and beauty parlor gossip – or as Clairee puts it, “If you can’t say anything nice about anybody…come sit by me!” Amid the trivial small-town chatter, though, the women learn that Shelby’s joy over her impending nuptials has been dampened by the news that her doctors have warned the bride, who is diabetic, not to have children.

As time passes, we revisit Shelby during her occasional visits to the beauty parlor. When she announces that she’s pregnant, Truvy and her regulars are thrilled – all except M’Lynn, that is, who fears the strain of giving birth will be too much for Shelby to handle.

As the years pass and Shelby’s health is indeed compromised from having a child, M’Lynn remains the steadfast, stoic mother – until the day comes when her maternal fortitude fails her. When that day arrives, her friends are there to strengthen and sustain her, both by allowing her to grieve and encouraging her to laugh.

As M’Lynn, Alhambra regular Lisa Valdini conveys the all-too-common frustration and sense of powerlessness felt by mothers everywhere when their children refuse to listen and insist on living their own lives. Her scenes with Rebecca Lea Chisholm as Shelby ring true both in the comedic and dramatic moments. As Truvy, Patti Eyler serves as the fulcrum of “Steel Magnolias,” dispensing dry one liners while balancing out the slapstick antics of Lexi Langs’ skittish, ultra-religious Annelle.

As the recently widowed Clairee, Cheryl Horne captures the wistfulness of a once socially prominent woman struggling to make a new life for herself. Her elegance and charm belie a woman far more mischievous and adventurous than meets the eye, and she shares what is perhaps the play’s funniest moment with guest star Dawn Wells (Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island”) as the cranky Ouiser. Despite glancing periodically at her lines on stage due to an abbreviated rehearsal schedule, Wells played the role to understated perfection. Resisting the temptation to make a cartoonish curmudgeon out of Ouiser, Wells imbued the character with a beating heart beneath her crusty exterior.

Together, the ensemble lives up to the play’s title, deftly presenting a circle of Southern women whose gentility is undergirded by a steely strength drawn from deep within themselves and one another.

“Steel Magnolias” runs through June 25 at The Alhambra Theatre & Dining . For tickets or more information, visit www.alhambrajax.