Steel Magnolias is a tease

L to R : Rachael Warren (Truvy), Anne Scurria (Ouiser), Madeleine Lambert (Shelby) and Janice Duclos (M'Lynn) in Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias. Directed by Brian Mertes, the show runs through May 15, 2011 in the Chace Theater. Set design by Michael McGarty, lighting design by Dan Scully, costumes by William Lane. (Photo: Mark Turek)

Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling, Trinity Repertory Company, 4/15/11-5/15/11.

Reviewed by Becca Kidwell

Most women know if they fix their hair and get it perfect, they shouldn’t mess with it.  Unfortunately, this production has sat too long coiffing itself after it already was looking good.  The beautiful script by Robert Harling and the talented ladies of the Trinity Repertory Company get lost in gimmicks and empty space.  Perhaps, in trying to distance itself from the movie, Mertes tried to make the production “new” and “fresh”, Trinity Rep’s production of Steel Magnolias loses the intimacy that the script requires.

While the Chace Theater is not the ideal space for this play in the first place, it’s understandable that it would be staged there to gather the largest audience possible; this does not prevent intimacy, however.  Many of the larger Broadway plays have found ways to compensate for the void with such techniques as places seats on and around the physical stage area or building out portions of the set into the audience.  Michael McGarty leaves a vacuous space with his set that loses the actors and keeps the audience from actively engaging in the play.

The talent does not stop, though; it’s only diffused.  Anne Scurria and Barbara Meek steal the show as the raucous Ouiser and Clairee. Anne Scurria’s cantankerous Ouiser delights the audience every moment she is on stage with her outlandish personality and biting remarks; however, she also has heart that makes her lovable.  Barbara Meek’s strong and independent Clairee provides the perfect stability for Ouiser.  Madeleine Lambert brings a sweet, yet strong Shelby to life.  Shelby’s bright, optimistic, independent spirit captures the hearts of the other characters as Lambert’s performance captures the hearts of the audience–if only it wasn’t partially lost by the set and direction.

Brian Mertes creates an awkward entrance for each of the characters; they each have their own “theme song” and spotlight.  This trivializes the theatrical experience and makes it seem like the audience has become a part of a sitcom or something equally ridiculous.  In addition, Mertes seems to be using superficial methods to draw the audience in; he has Anne Scurria make her entrance through the audience, but that is the only time any character goes into the audience or has any real contact with the audience.  Moreover, Brian Mertes has characters almost break the fourth wall, but in such a way that it seems neither deliberate or natural.  Are they talking to us?  To themselves?  Or someone else?

Michael McGarty’s set primarily consists of the beauty shop on a turntable.  This works for giving the audience different perspectives of the shop and giving the actors a greater range of movement (although on the Chace stage, this shouldn’t be an issue).  The rest of the area of the stage seems to have been an afterthought; it is virtually empty and only used primarily for entrances, exits, and minor background action.  This empty garage that McGarty built creates a show that seems both unrealistic and separate from the audience.

Understandably, Brian Mertes wants to distinguish his production from the award-winning movie.  However, the result is a theatrical performance that rarely reaches the audience and rarely evokes the apparent warm sentiments of the script.  The audience members are left with strong performances by the Trinity Repertory Company’s women that they can barely connect with.  TNETG.  4/21/11.


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