Southern Comfort

   Southern women have a constitution all their own. Fiercely independent yet committed to close friends and family values, they are born and bred to be as tough as steel and as delicate as magnolias.

Linda Farmer and Sally Bondi in Steel Magnolias. Photo by Amy Pasquantonio

   This strong breed is at the heart of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, on stage at The Wick Theatre and Costume Museum through April 20. Set in Louisiana’s Chinquapin Parish in the 1980s, Magnolias examines the relationship of six women—five lifelong neighbors and one newcomer—within the quintessential women’s domain: the beauty parlor. Men are discussed, but never appear, augmenting the themes of sisterhood so crucial to the emotional weight of the play. Laugh-out-loud humor is balanced with stinging sorrow as one member of the group is taken from the salon, Chinquapin Parish and the world far too soon.

     After premiering on Broadway in 1987, Steel Magnolias became part of the pop culture lexicon thanks to the 1989 film starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts. As the penultimate production in The Wick’s inaugural season, Magnolias shows a growth in both confidence and quality for the infant organization.

   Sean McClelland designed the stunning set in house—a first for the company. The carport-turned-beauty salon is charmingly homespun, decorated with floral wallpaper, faux linoleum and lacey curtains. The architectural elements of both the salon and the main house show a keen attention to detail, while the quirky costume design by Robin Buerger transports the audience to the acid-washed heyday of the 1980s.

   The production’s technical merit is second only to the hilarious cast of characters. Salon owner Truvy Jones (Patti Eyler) is a pillar of strength for her customers and lives by the philosophy to always be “nice to each other; there’s nothing else to do in this town.” As Jones, Eyler dishes out wisdom with every perm, manicure and updo, and in a very convincing Louisianian accent.

   As newcomer Annelle, Linda Farmer’s brand of southern charm is more Britney Spears than Scarlett O’Hara. She begins as a quiet girl with a storied past (“I may or may not be married to someone who is a dangerous criminal,” she laments) and evolves into “the kind of girl Jesus would bring home to mama.” Though Farmer initially struggles with the accent, she relaxes into a charming, albeit naive, character.

Robin Proett Olson, Patti Eyler, Linda Farmer and Sally Bondi in Steel Magnolias. Photo by Amy Pasquantonio

   From scene one, Sally Bondi hits it out of the park as Clairee Belcher. The widow of the former mayor of Chinquapin Parish, Clairee knows everybody and is eager to learn the latest gossip. A fount of wisdom and one-liners (“The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize”), Clairee is the perfect balance of brass and compassion. And Bondi conveys this balance through comedic timing, clean transitions and sincere emotions.

   The spice to all this sugar comes in the form of Ouiser Boudreaux, played by Robin Proett Olson. Ouiser is the town curmudgeon, bursting into the salon bellyaching about this transgression or that injustice. Olson imbues the character with a sympathetic air necessary for the audience to accept her as part of the group.

Alison McCartan in Steel Magnolias. Photo by Amy Pasquantonio

   These four women form the support system for a mother and daughter dealing with life and death. Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie (Alison McCartan) is a vivacious young wife and mother whose love of life is hindered only by her diabetes. Her mother, M’Lynn (Aaron Bower), is the voice of reason, often lovingly reminding her daughter of her limitations. McCartan’s Shelby is playful and full of life—making the character’s few moments of physical weakness all the more poignant. Bower’s stoicism is a strong counterpoint to her fictional daughter’s optimism, and the production’s most compelling scene comes when this stoicism implodes.

   Steel Magnolias is a common feature on the repertory theater circuit, but The Wick’s earnest technical efforts and delightful cast set this production apart. Whether you’re as tough as steel, as delicate as magnolias or somewhere in between, you’ll find yourself wishing for a home like Chinquapin Parrish and an appointment at Ms. Truvy’s salon.

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