I go to the theater because I’m looking for joy; I’m looking for moments that make me think about my own life and the people in it differently, or with a new sense of urgency or strength. Bristol Riverside Theater’s sublime production of “Steel Magnolias” hits all of these points; it is a beautiful presentation of a classic that makes you reexamine your relationships with the people you love and embrace the value of friendship, the challenges of loss, and the strange magic of laughter through tears.
You probably know the plot of
“Steel Magnolias,” either via a previous production or the 1989 film adaptation. Robert Harling’s 1987 play involves six women in small-town Louisiana whose lives intersect at Truvy (Jo Twiss)’s hair salon. Harling wrote the play as a posthumous tribute to his sister, embodied in Shelby (Jennie Eisenhower). We open on her wedding day in mid-April, revisit the women that December, check in once again 18 months later, in June, and finally reconvene the following November, after a terrible loss.
In a little over two hours we spend two full years with these women and fall a bit in love; Truvy is magnificently bawdy and larger-than-life, wealthy Clairee (Diane J. Findlay) is wry in her humor and generous in her affection, new hairdresser Annelle (Laura C. Giknis) is given tremendous room to blossom and transform (and a few amazing comedic moments) over the span of time, and irascible Ouiser (Susan Moses) is 98 percent curmudgeon and 2 percent hopeless romantic.
It’s a tremendous ensemble, and I found myself caught off-guard by the surprising and solid choices made in characterization and timing by director Susan D. Atkinson. This is a familiar Magnolias, but there’s an earnestness to this story and these women that make it feel fresh and wholly new at BRT.
At its core, Steel Magnolias is about Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn (Barbara McCulloh). Eisenhower and McCulloh are beautiful, warm performers with a gift for connecting with each other. Eisenhower is a charmer, in head to toe pink, with explosive vivacity that sucks you in.
McCulloh’s guarded concern and wondrous support of her child is incredibly touching, and it’s easy to understand where Shelby’s lust for life clashes irreconcilably with M’Lynn’s desire to protect her. The well-tended love between mother and daughter is the crown jewel in the ample crown of this production, and it makes the final scene both incredibly heartbreaking and jubilant, in turns, by virtue of its realism and grounding.
There’s one pitfall with this production, and it’s on behalf of the audience: do your best to put the film aside. I found myself struggling against the iconic imagery of Dolly Parton, Shirley MacClaine, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, Julia Roberts, and Olympia Dukakis. BRT’s Steel Magnolias is a different creature, equally deserving of your attention and affection. This isn’t simply an echo of the film, but a wonderful celebration of Harling’s script with a vibrant heart all its own.
Nels Anderson’s set design is comfy and open while screaming ’80s in the best possible way. The excellent set, combined with Lisa Zinni’s appropriate costumes really brings out the flavor of the era. The well-chosen tunes that erupt out of Shelby’s radio (a key plot point) are well chosen by Adam B. Orseck, and will probably make you dive into your iTunes afterward, looking for a little bit of New Wave ’80s rock.
I sometimes worry that, amid all the theater I see, I become emotionally inaccessible to stories as a whole. Not so here; I found myself laughing loudly and weeping openly. That’s the beauty of Steel Magnolias — this astounding production summons the full range of your emotions. It’s a fabulous testament to family, friendship, and love, and I hope you give yourself the gift of checking it out.
Steel Magnolias, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, April 8. $30-50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.