ST. PETERSBURG — For a few sweet moments in Steel Magnolias, set entirely in the home hair salon of Miss Truvy Jones, the senses are treated to honey-dipped awareness.
There's the sound of the lilting, Southern dialogue ("There is no such thing as natural beauty," Truvy declares). There's the sight of the surroundings, celery greens, corals and whites, old-fashioned hair dryers, teal salon smocks, the integral magnolia tree with no blooms.
And because American Stage's Raymond James Theatre is such an intimate space, when the actors spray real hair products during gabby beauty sessions, the fragrances waft slowly into the audience.
Boom. You're in a real salon in Chinquapin, La. And you care about the people in it.
American Stage has captured a warm spirit in Robert Harling's play. Written following the death of Harling's own sister, the play debuted off-Broadway in 1987 and two years later became the Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts movie everyone knows and loves.
American Stage has cast the play with all African-American women, something the Lifetime network did in a 2012 movie with Alfre Woodard and Queen Latifah. Under the direction of Bob Devin Jones, the choice feels so natural it's hard to remember it was ever done any other way.
The set, designed by Greg Bierce, reflects the change of lens, decorated with photos of Whitney Houston, Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin. The women read magazines like Ebony and list Naomi Campbell and Beverly Johnson as beauty inspirations.
Whitney Drake, fresh from playing Dorothy in American Stage's The Wiz, tackles Shelby, a diabetic bride set on having a child even if it hurts her. "I'd rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special," she says.
Drake, a dynamic singer and former cruise ship performer, is coming into her own as an actor. She carries Harling's lines with subtlety and charm and finds a natural rhythm with Fanni Green, who plays her mother, M'Lynn.
Perri Gaffney plays town crank Ouiser Boudreax with delicious salt, and manages some very real streaming tears when the fun eventually gives way to sadness (you knew it would).
A surprise gem was Brandy Grant as nervous hairstylist Annelle Dupuy, new in town and full of drama. "I promise that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair," she says. Grant has an adorable quality that manages not to be cloying.
Jones has nourished the script with gentle, poignant touches. When Shelby goes into a diabetic seizure, Truvy (Tia Jemison) kicks off her high heels. When Shelby is distracted in another moment, M'Lynn quietly peels the dreaded baby's breath out of her daughter's wedding hairdo.
Occasionally the actors stumbled over each other's lines on opening night, and the timing lagged in places. It's bound to smooth out. In the end, the cast sweetly deploys Steel Magnolias' message that the people you need most are found in the places you least expect.
The play opened Friday amid big shifts at American Stage, the largest producing professional theater in Tampa Bay. Longtime artistic director Todd Olson has taken a new job in Maryland, and the company's leadership addressed the sold-out crowd about the search for a new leader.
"He put his stamp on this theater," managing director Ken Slaby said of Olson. "We're on firm ground and we're not going to miss a beat."