Assurance, professionalism, and absolute artistry combine seamlessly on both performance and production levels to make Bucks County Playhouse’s “Steel Magnolias” not only a grand entertainment but an example of how a simple, familiar play can maintain the luster it had when it was new.
Actresses of broad, deep experience and proven caliber have the gift of remaining natural and tossing off playwright Robert Harling’s “smart-ass” similes and one-liners as if they were part of spontaneous conversation and not a series of set-ups and jokes.
When you visit Truvy’s beauty parlor in northwestern Louisiana circa 1985, you will be treated to the expected idle gossip, small-town concerns, and warm displays of friendship and understanding, but in the hands of Patricia Richardson (M’Lynn), Susan Sullivan (Clairee), Jessica Walter (Ouiser), Elaine Hendrix (Truvy), Clea Alsip (Shelby), and Lucy DiVito (Annelle), these become an involving slice of life and more.
The performers, some known from their signature roles on television, have the invaluable skill to make each line and gesture count while having them seem matter-of-fact, integral to the action, and distinctively indicative of their characters.
Director Marsha Mason has to be credited as the architect who knits six individual dynamos together into a tight ensemble cast while bringing out the most important elements of Harling’s play, which seems to be primarily conversational but has a strong central story and some themes and ideas that recur.
In Mason’s production that story reveals itself clearly but subtly, just as Richardson, Sullivan, and company don’t push jokes but let humor flow as the instinctive wit of clever women. Shelby’s diabetes and the ravages to her body come up dramatically but incidentally and build over the four scenes. Shelby’s predicament is always handled adroitly. Whether it arises as another matter to be addressed, such as when Alsip affectingly plays Shelby lapsing into near unconsciousness while orange juice and candy are fetched to raise her sugar level, or surfaces as Harling’s focal point, at a time when M’Lynn reveals she is donating a kidney to her daughter, it receives exactly the amount of attention and weight it warrants.
“Steel Magnolias” is a comedy with a lump in its throat, and Mason and troupe are deft at knowing when to keep the serious portions of the play light, that is to know when to make them realistically affecting and when to be emotionally devastating.
The great part about Mason’s ensemble is how easily the performers commune with each other. The actresses give the illusion of being as close and as symbiotic as the characters they play, women from a small town who know each other inside and out as personalities and know each other’s alleged secrets.
This closeness makes some of Harling’s recurring attitudes more poignant. The characters are always asking each other what they can do to help or ease a situation. And Mason’s company shows these women to be a community within themselves, able to rely on one another, and to give and get solace and comfort even as they tease each other, especially Ouiser, about their foibles and more extreme traits.
Everything in Mason’s production seems in perfect proportion. Richardson is particularly wonderful at doing small, almost unnoticeable things to give M’Lynn individuality while never pulling focus or trying to dominate. For instance, she flashes a thumbs-up at Shelby at an opportune time and seems appropriately distracted and uninvolved when Truvy and the others are sharing some innocuous but funny story while M’Lynn, is quietly agonizing over Shelby’s health.
Richardson gives insight to M’Lynn’s profession, a counselor at a mental health facility, that rarely registers in other “Magnolia” productions. She can show private concern while participating in the general frivolity of talk at Truvy’s.
Susan Sullivan is a master at showing how quick Clairee can be with a tart or sarcastic comment while couching it in elegance and sportsmanlike fellowship. Sullivan makes Clairee important in ways most actresses playing the part do not. You are always waiting for her next comment or delighting in her talent for getting her friends to tell their stories.
Jessica Walter rates a laugh on entrance. Her expression not only shows her current rage at M’Lynn’s husband but makes it clear Ouiser is honest when she says she’s been “in a bad mood for the last 40 years.” Walter is also shrewd in showing the gradual changes, and even softening, in Ouiser as she develops a romantic interest. Costume designer Nicole V. Moody adds to this transition by making Ouiser’s clothes progressively prettier and her hairdo increasingly attractive.
Elaine Hendrix barely shows signs of acting as Truvy. She is the hostess of the ensemble’s gatherings, and she does her business with natural cool. Lucy DiVito is a charmer as Annelle. Her comic timing is impeccable, and she has some priceless expressions as Annelle becomes further immersed in evangelical Baptism.
Richardson anchors Mason’s production. Sullivan and Hendrix keep it moving efficiently. Clea Alsip beautifully provides its heart. In a remarkable performance, she endows Shelby with the exact carefree optimism and sunny personality that make her so lovable to her friends and the women who watched her mature. Alsip’s spirit makes Shelby’s ordeal tangible and emotionally involving, adding great depth and a note of tragedy to Mason’s staging.
Lauren Helpern’s single set is cunningly designed. A door upstage right allows characters to enter, and the famous actresses to receive applause, without interrupting the action. It is also attractive and decorative in a way that seems right for Truvy.
Steel Magnolias, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, PA. Through Saturday, June 18. $40 to $84. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.