Peeling Onions in the Parlor
By Tom Wachunas
At one point during the current Players Guild production of Robert Harling’s 1987 play, Steel Magnolias, the surly, eccentric character, Ouiser Boudreaux, regales her fellow regulars gathered at Truvy’s Beauty Salon with this cranky pronouncement: “I do not see plays, because I can nap at home for free.”
Here, then, is a robust gumbo of a story, peppered with many such jibes and aphorisms, set in the small Louisiana parish of Chinquapin. And I can assure you there’s little chance of falling asleep during this brilliant performance.
Director Craig Joseph has once again brought together a powerhouse ensemble, masterfully (magically?) eliciting from each of the six women a startlingly intense level of artistry and believability, right down to their lilting Southern accents. In the intimacy of the Guild’s arena theater, their deft performances effectively dissolve the proverbial divide between acting the part and being the part. Likewise, we in the audience don’t feel like passive voyeurs, but rather privileged visitors to Truvy’s establishment.
Truvy’s salon is the local hot spot where a close-knit group of women faithfully gathers for coiffure and banter both sassy and sugary. As Truvy, Sandra Schmeltzer is something of a mother hen, wise-cracking keeper of the camaraderie, and an otherwise delightful social anchor, exuding authentic warmth and concern toward her chicks, so to speak.
The story doesn’t “unfold” so much as it falls away in successive layers, exposing individual secrets and longings. In the process, the insouciant gossip among the women gives way to genuinely shared histories, some of them tragic. Yet plenty of gut-splitting hilarity ensues along the way.
A particularly generous portion of humor is provided by Catie Hewitt in her role of Truvy’s newly hired assistant, Annelle. Hewitt turns in a quirky, wistful and wholly captivating portrayal of the jittery victim of a runaway husband. She’s easily rattled by the other ladies’ raucous blathering. After becoming a born-again evangelical, she’s the in-house missionary of sorts, fervently praying for her beloved- but -wayward clientele even as they get their hair done.
Remarkably adept with razor-sharp timing and delivery in trading sarcastic barbs, both Carol Sampsel Peck and Susan Brothers turn in infectiously high-energy presentations of, respectively, senior citizens Clairee (widow of the Mayor and anxiously looking to re-focus her life) and Ouiser, the rich town grouch everyone loves to target. “I’m not crazy,” Ouiser protests to her critics, “I’ve just been in a very bad mood for the last 40 years!”
Much of the narrative thrust here is generated by Shelby, played with astonishing, often heartrending depth by Amanda Larkin, and her rocky relationship with her mother, M’Lynn, played by Maria Work. Separately or together, they deliver the play’s most dramatically visceral and poignant scenes. The story that began with Shelby’s wedding day spans the next few years and climaxes with a shattering family crisis which has a jarring but transformative effect on all the characters, not least of which being M’Lynn. While Maria Work at first comes off as deliberately measured in her character’s prim and proper demeanor, it’s fascinating to watch her progression into explosive transparency.
In the end, I was left emotionally drained yet in deep appreciation that I had witnessed a marvelous and compelling achievement - an elegant albeit bittersweet union of great theatre and real life.
Steel Magnolias runs through April 28 at Canton Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N. in Canton. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Single tickets are $11. Box office (330) 453-7617, or visit www.playersguildtheatre.com
PHOTOS by Michael Lawrence Akers – Top, cast from left to right: Sandra Schmeltzer, Carol Sampsel Peck, Amanda Larkin, Catie Hewitt, Susan Brothers, Maria Work