If you want a living definition of "warm comedy-drama," look no further than Steel Magnolias, the 1987 play turned into a blockbuster movie two years later and now playing matinees and weekends through Sept. 25 at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre.
Set in a mid-1980s north Louisiana beauty shop, it's the story of six very different women who through the years have become best pals as they had their hair clipped and set on big rollers, gossiped and traded barbs as only longtime friends can do.
The play has become a favorite of theaters and on television, but each new cast puts its own feel on the characters and plot, and that's precisely what the Show Palace cast does.
Besides, there are so many funny lines that members of the audience can't possibly have memorized every single one, so won't anticipate them, as some people in Friday's opening night audience did all too many times (hint: saying the actor's line seconds before the actors do is most irritating, even to those of us who also know the lines).
Cheers for artistic director Matthew McGee and director Scott Daniel, whose casting choices were inspired. This is an ensemble play, with each character having equal importance. Still there's always one who sticks in the mind.
In this case, it will likely be Jacque Wheeler as Ouiser, the cranky southern woman who has had two bad marriages, three ungrateful kids and now raises tomatoes and dotes on an old dog who tags around after her.
Ms. Wheeler's Ouiser is larger than life, underscored by her substantial physical presence and wide gestures that anyone reared in the south will recognize, as every southern town has at least one like her (in my hometown, her name was Helen and she raised orchids).
Special kudos to Betty-Jean Parks, who stepped into the role of the shy new hairdresser Annelle Dupuy on Tuesday, after the original actor was called out of town on a family emergency. Ms. Parks' performance is as polished as if she'd been in rehearsal from day one, gliding from mousy waif to saucy blond to frizzy-haired brownette as her religious proclivities emerge.
Patti Eyler (Dolly in Hello, Dolly) is a spunky Truvy, owner of the beauty shop, with big ol' hair and loads of compassion. Kay Francis is a delicate and lovely Clairee Belcher, the widow of the town's mayor. Both these accomplished actors bring new and pleasing facets to their characters.
Arguably, the most difficult role is M'Lynn Eatenton (Susan Haldeman), mother of Shelby Eatenton (a radiant Bevin Prince), a young bride determined to have a baby with her rather indifferent husband, Jackson, even though it could endanger her life.
M'Lynn must show a wide range of emotions, from deep concern for her daughter to grief and acceptance of what life has given her, and Ms. Haldeman does these from A to Z without ever going overboard on any of them — no histrionics, no explosive emotional outbursts, no flinging herself about. Instead, Ms. Haldeman shows M'Lynn's deeply felt grief and anger through tight, controlled, but visible feeling that plays perfectly on the relatively intimate Show Palace stage. Her clinched fists, her tightly furious fumbling through her handbag, her frantic looks into her own face in the shop's mirror, her tightening of her entire body convey emotions too intense for a tantrum. Her wisely restrained treatment of this harrowing moment in the play allows the rest of the action to move forward smoothly and believably, even as the sadness over the events lingers.
Daniel's costumes and wigs place the action squarely in the 80s, so that the cultural references and attitudes seem appropriate instead of dated. Tom Hansen's set, with its two tiers, allows each actor to be completely visible throughout the play. Some awkwardly-placed body mics muffled some of the dialogue on opening night, but that cleared up considerably for act two.
Steel Magnolias may be familiar to many, but its very familiarity is what makes it a comfortable and comforting evening of theater.