Steel Magnolias creates poetry out of everyday life

An ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure, declares Clairee, one of the regulars at Truvy’s hair salon. Steel Magnolias, the latest production of GW’s Theater and Dance Department, lives by this motto, shucking any notions of grand theatre and focusing upon the simplicity of everyday life. What is left is average people expressing themselves through average means of speech, creating poetry from commonplace dialogue.

Set in Louisiana during the 1980s, the story takes place in the local hair salon, where a group of neighborhood women go each Saturday to get their hair done and discuss the local gossip. The set succeeds in creating a homey, natural atmosphere, capturing the look of the small-town salon right down to the array of hair products cluttering the shelves. Music strung through the scene adds the flavor of 1980s pop culture, as well as the costumes, which tell us as much about the characters as about the era in which they lived.

The play follows several storylines, including the spiritual awakening of new girl Annelle (Sarah Fischer) and Clairee’s (Patricia Jenson) search for purpose following the recent death of her husband. But the central story is that of Shelby (Cody Lindquist), who, as the play opens, is about to be married. Born a diabetic, Shelby is struggling to deal with what the doctors tell her: that having children may cost kill her.

As Shelby and her mother M’Lynn (Jenny Towns) wrangle for power over Shelby’s future, Truvy (Sabrina Hyman), the sagacious proprietor of the salon, and the other patrons rally together in support of the mother and daughter. The play’s theme is serious and sentimental, but the play gets some refreshing comic relief from the slightly dotty Clairee and haughty Ouiser (Maggie Gallant). What results is a reaffirmation of the bonds between friends and loved ones, proof that good is always present no matter how bad things may seem.

Unlike most efforts to reproduce a southern drawl, these six actresses avoid the usual overkill (known as Gone With the Wind syndrome) and feature softer, more subdued accents that persist through the most emotional scenes. Jenny Towns, as M’Lynn, delivers an honest, moving characterization of the strong-willed mother fearful for her daughter’s safety. The final scene of the play owes much to her very real performance. The endearing, girl-next-door personality of Shelby keeps the audience’s sympathy close by thanks to Cody Lindquist’s sensitive portrayal. Credit also must be given to Sabrina Hyman, who seems so comfortable in the part of Truvy that the words seem to be her own.

Being comfortable is key in this play, as each actress must appear relaxed in her role, completely at ease in her speech and movement. By refusing to put on airs the actresses have managed to keep the play at ground level, making it possible for the audience to relate directly to the issues. There is no curtain separating this play from the outside world, and it is all the better for it.

Steel Magnolias plays at Hand Chapel on the Mount Vernon campus Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30.

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