Play Runs Through the Usual Southern Women Clichés In Search of a Point
Baltimore is a small city for a theater reviewer, so sometimes mere coincidences look like grand designs. At Spotlighters Theatre, in the musical Mamaleh, five Jewish women across a spectrum of ages sing about boob lifts, nose jobs, hairdos, and men. In Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias at Vagabond Players, six white Southern women sit around a beauty shop talking about—you got it—hairdos, men, and neighborhood gossip. So take your pick. If, like this reviewer, you saw Mamaleh at Spotlighters three years ago, check out Steel Magnolias this time around.
It’s not a bad idea for a play. Stages and screens have always been filled with men shooting the breeze at barbershops, saloons, and diners, while women try to squeeze themselves into the plot line between haircuts, car washes, and beers. Steel Magnolias reverses that arrangement. The guys are placed far in the background and, for most part, no one misses them: They’re beer-swilling rednecks, couch potatoes, ex-cons, and generally weak links. The women hold things together.
Given this arrangement you’d think Harling would seize this opportunity to strip away female stereotypes and dig beneath the surface, but while this dramedy is a tribute to Southern womanhood, Harling chooses to leave the surface largely unruffled. “There’s no such thing as natural beauty”—that’s the guiding philosophy at Truvy’s beauty salon. And if that reduces the definition of personhood to powder cake and permanents, so be it. It suits the women of Chinquapin Parish fine. Seeking brief respite from the world of men, they wander in and out of the salon, thumbing through old magazines, working on their manicures, perms, and highlights, and shooting the breeze.
Harling’s dramatic techniques are as artificial and time-tested as a hairdo. Within a few minutes, in classic ensemble-cast fashion, Harling introduces six women. Truvy (Holly Pasciullo) is the owner, a chatty woman in early middle age. Annelle (Jessica Feldman) is a new, nervous employee whose marital insecurities have led her toward Baptist revivalists for spiritual comfort. Clairee (Nona Porter) is the matronly widow of the town’s mayor, who dispenses wisdom and cake recipes. Shelby (Laurel Burggraf) is a young woman who comes to get baby’s breath twined into her hair in anticipation of her wedding day. Ouisier (Binnie Ritchie Holum), meanwhile, is a cranky, wealthy Southern eccentric who carries a revolver in her purse. Finally, M’Lynn (Lynda McClary) is the tough, middle-class mother who loves her daughter Shelby but tangles with her constantly.
There’s not much for them to do but get their manicure sets and curlers out. Using heavy doses of beauty-shop vernacular, Harling lets them chatter and gossip. For the first act, the engine idles. The wit is there, but not rapier-sharp. They complain about men, a little friction exists, but, in the end, it doesn’t run too deep. What makes Harling’s play so surprising is that there are no surprises: The women speak and gossip exactly as Southern gentlewomen are supposed to. He’s not trying to break the mold; he’s celebrating it.
It’s Harling’s intention to illustrate that there’s more to those ceremonies than we may glimpse at first sight. Certainly, women in beauty parlors tend to talk about fairly mundane things; Harling wants to show that when the chips are down this is exactly what makes them “steely” in sharp contrast to their generally helpless mates.
By the play’s end, Harling is forced to play his dramatist cards by inducing crisis. Emotions get ratcheted beyond mundane, but it doesn’t happen onstage. It would spoil things to narrate it in detail, but, well, stuff happens. Characters bond. Play ends. And on one level, he succeeds. You learn something about steely Southern womanhood, justifying the title—but even after the somewhat climactic ending, individual characters remain enigmatic and their possibilities are largely untapped.
Maybe that’s because Harling just hasn’t spent that much time with his hair in curlers. Dialogue, for the most part, is a little stilted, and intricately indeterminate. Frankly, nothing happens in the first half of the play.
But when the plot gets moving, the Vagabond crew comes into its own. Holum offers an energized but controlled performance as a grouchy and eccentric but appealing spitfire. It brought to mind her excellent 2002 performance at Axis Theatre in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers. And, most notably, McClary’s turn as Shelby’s mom offers equal doses of tough love and vulnerability with a performance that keeps the melodrama mellow just when the plot starts to boil.
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