CUBA — Mix together one classic play, six seasoned actresses and a veteran director and crew and you’d probably get what you’d expect — a polished and exciting evening of entertainment, which opens tonight at the Palmer Opera House.
The classic play in this case is “Steel Magnolias,” which opened on Broadway in 1987 and spawned an equally classic movie two years later. The play is set in a Louisiana beauty parlor owned by Truvy Jones (Karen Layman-Woolston). She’s the stable one who provides the meeting place for her friends and also takes an interest in their lives.
She also does hair. (Really — on stage, she does another character’s hair.) She states her business philosophy early on: “There is no such thing as natural beauty.”
Among Truvy’s friends are a witty, wealthy widow, Clairee Belcher (Nicole Missel); a mother-daughter pair, Shelby Eatonton-Latcherie and M’Lynn Eatonton (played to perfection by Tanaka Losey and Marcia Wymer, respectively), who have differences of opinion on everything from hair styles to fashion to men; a nutty neighbor, Ousier Boudreaux, played hilariously by Kristin Asinger; and the shop’s “new girl” with a rather mysterious background, Annelle Dupuy-Desoto (Alicia Bockmier).
What makes the play work so well is that it may be viewed as a serious play with humorous moments or as a comedy with serious overtones. In any event, one of the characters dies, but there are some great lines and funny moments along the way.
The play opens on Shelby‘s wedding day while all the gals are gathered at the hairdresser’s to beautify themselves for the occasion. Ms. Losey is witty in describing her husband-to-be and in exchanges with her mother about her hair and color preferences. (It’s all about pink!)
Things turn tense as she suffers an attack brought on by her diabetes, but the light-hearted mood returns when the grumpy Ousier comes to complain about M’Lynn’s husband scaring her dog by shooting at the birds in the trees. Ugly dog jokes and goofy husband jokes prevail at the end of the scene.
The next three scenes are played in the same setting, as Shelby returns for visits from her new home in another city. As we learn more about Shelby — her pregnancy, her mother’s reaction, complications a year later, etc. — the dramatic aspect of the play comes to the fore.
The actresses have established their characters early and, more and more as the play goes along, they become real people who care deeply about one another.
The final scene is dominated by Ms. Wymer. Now the grieving mother, she displays her acting range with an emotional outburst that is disarmed by a funny and discerning Clairee. Annelle makes a surprising and touching announcement, and the play ends in the equivalent of a group hug, which radiates from these outstanding ladies on the stage through the audience.
With such a talented group of actresses, Eric Van Druff appears to have an easy job as director. In reality, his deft touches are seen throughout the evening, from the functional design of the set to the subtle yet almost constant movement of the characters through the beauty parlor — nothing is static here.
It was also smart on Van Druff’s part to moderate the Southern accents used — it’s obvious that these women are in the South, but no one is being smothered with corn pone when they speak.
The Palmer Opera House in Cuba is a terrific venue for this play. The stage space and lighting seem perfect for the beauty shop interior. The sound system amplifies the voices perfectly without being overwhelming. The technical aspects of the play complement the outstanding performances to create a most enjoyable evening at the theater.
“Steel Magnolias” opens this evening at the Palmer Opera House at 12 W. Main St. in Cuba, with performances tonight and tomorrow night at 7 and Sunday at 2 p.m. Drinks and light snacks will be available during intermission.
(In the original version of this review, due to an editor's error, it noted that "Steel Magnolias" is presented by Olean Community Theater. Correctly, the local theater group of the Palmer Opera House is presenting the play.)