A Few Moments of Grace: Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling, directed by Nancy Curran Willis
Nextdoor Center for the Arts, July 13-28 2012, http://www.nextdoortheater.org/STEEL.html

photo credit: Nextdoor Center for the Arts

Reviewed by Kate Lonberg-Lew

(Winchester, MA) When I watch an Olympic gymnast fly on the balance beam or the uneven bars, I
know I am watching genius, not because I know the difference between a punch- front summersault and a double pike, but because they make it look easy, effortless. The same can be said of playwright Robert Harling, the author of Steel Magnolias.
Yes, the tight dialogue is clever, funny, and heartfelt, but it is much more than that. His characters are so textured, so real, that you can no more imagine they are fake than you could your best friend. Even the men, whom we never meet, are unique, from Clairee’s sweet nephew to Truvy’s ‘couch–slug’ husband. The story, set in the south in the 1980s, is about a girl coping with diabetes and her burning desires for independence and a child of her own. It’s also about a group of women discovering the value of friendship and each other. When you hear Harding’s script, you will find yourself laughing through your tears and walk away feeling as though you spent the evening with your closest girlfriends.

Harling’s script requires comedic timing and emotional reach in equal measure, demanding the actresses be Janes-of-all-trades. And the cast of the Nextdoor Center for the Arts production in Winchester is not consistently up to the task. There are missed comedic beats and times when the emotion falls short. That distinct southern accent seems to come and go. But there are also wonderfully genuine moments. Times when you forget you are at the theater and instead listening
to ‘girls’ share the latest town gossip as they get their hair done. The cast is at it’s best during these quieter moments. Beth Gotha stands out as Clairee, matching Ouiser’s (Margaret McCarthy) ascorbic wit with steady aplomb and well-timed zingers of her own. Sarajane Mullins embodies Annelle, depicting the nervous energy of the new girl with a past.

The set, the interior of a beauty parlor, is quite realistic and unobtrusive. The theater caught a lucky break when a closing salon gave them access to their inventory. The lighting also enhances the script’s quiet action as lighting designer, Erik Fox, wisely refrains from anything flashy.

While the performances are uneven, Harding’s script carries the show, making for an enjoyable night. And to be fair, it’s hard win gold when Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, and Dolly Parton are your competition.

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