Rebekah Lynn Dow & Kaelyn Drane in Steel Magnolias.
By Robert Harling
Directed by Rush Trowel
Reviewed by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias is one of the most frequently selected plays by community theatre groups and the foundation for a small sub-genre of contemporary American drama: comedy/melodrama focusing on indomitable and often eccentric Southern women. But ubiquity is no measure of the weight and importance of material. The popularity of this particular piece might simply be explained by the fact that it affords an opportunity for juicy roles for six women (never take that for granted), or, perhaps more importantly, that there is a large segment of the population that identifies with these characters: Truvy, Clairee, M’Lynn and the rest remind us of our mothers, grandmothers or sisters, even ourselves. These women are placed very specifically in the fictional Chinquaipin Parrish in northwestern Louisiana, but that specificity only allows for an even greater identification.
Producer-director Rush Trowel here mounts the play with an African-American cast, with little adjustment in the text, which also speaks to the universality of the play. A few of the cultural references might seem questionable when spoken by black women, but the emotional core of the scenario and the relationships hold true.
What is most important is the quality and commitment of the playing, and this production scores well on that count. Rebekah Lynn Dow captures salon owner Truvy’s oversize personality and sassy nature in a way that’s consistent with the writing but with a dash of individual African-American flavor. Lauren White makes the most of Clairee’s biting sense of humor, displaying a veteran’s ease and expertise with the character. Betty Macklin is so committed to Ouiser’s sour disposition; she is only occasionally caught playing for laughs, mostly earning them by playing it straight. These three characters are rendered as confidently as any version I have seen.
Janelle Hunnicutt makes Annelle more wide-eyed wary than socially awkward; a young woman at first bemused but also intimidated by the strong personalities of the older women before she is fully accepted. Kaelyn Drane is appropriately sweet but determined as Shelby, and J.D. Green is very good as her mother M’Lynn, although there was some measure of disbelief that she was plausibly old enough to be Drane’s mother. She also seemed awkward in some of the early scenes, although she powerfully navigated the complex and absolutely crucial emotional demands of the final scene.
Set design is more upper middle class suburban than the kitschy, converted carport of the original, which nicely helps subvert expectations in a subtle way. This single setting is extremely important to the play’s dynamics, an aspect that is jettisoned in both film versions. When the key emotional moments are transplanted elsewhere in time and place, it misses the point that this beauty parlor is a very personal and nearly sacred meeting place to these women. The action of the final scene transpires in the way that it does in part because of where it takes place; its one of the strengths of Steel Magnolias that it recognizes that notion.
The sound design represents the most pronounced cultural distinctions for an African-American cast, featuring soul, R&B, and hip-hop songs. It was also uncharacteristically choppy in its cues and cut-offs, one of the few glitches of the production.
Mr. Trowell has staged his Steel Magnolias in the Burnett Avenue Baptist Church; a not entirely inappropriate locale thematically – it emphasizes the religious aspects of the story somewhat more than in other productions, but the broad, open space presented some challenges in sight lines to backstage and in acoustics. For the most part, the cast projected admirably enough to be heard in the back rows.
While this stands as a strong production that could appeal to any fan of the play, it also showcases African-American theatrical talent in Louisville that largely eludes the larger audience, and raises questions in this reviewer’s mind. Why is Actors Theatre the only company capable of mounting a production of August Wilson’s plays by casting (as is their practice) mostly from outside of Louisville when Rush Trowell can manage a strong cast here? The evidence shows that black talent is here in abundance, and I see a lot of plays, yet three-quarters of this cast were unfamiliar to me. Why the divide? Are actors such as Ms. Macklin and Ms. White not auditioning all over town? I can recall that one local theatre scheduled a production of the musical Dreamgirls, only to cancel it after issuing a statement that open auditions did not produce African-American actors with the requisite musical theatre skills, yet CenterStage can field impressive, racially appropriate ensembles for Ragtime, The Color Purple and Once On This Island.
I don’t have the answers, but I feel compelled to pose the questions. In any event, this Steel Magnolias is worth the attention and the journey to South Hurstbourne Pkwy, a spot well off the typical beaten path for most theatregoers. As for the talented cast, I look forward to seeing them on future stages.
September 10, & 11 @ 8:00 pm
September 12 @ 2:00 pm
September 13 @ 4:00 pm
Rush Trowel & Faith Works Studios
At Burnett Avenue Baptist Church
6800 South Hurstbourne Pkwy
Louisville, KY 40291
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.