Sitting in the basement of St. Bonaventure Parish, the home of theater company, Saint Sebastian Players, I felt like I had suddenly been transported to a rural small town a couple decades back. Such is the situation upon entering Saint Sebastian Player’s “Steel Magnolias.” The cosy space was the perfect place to watch the very intimate production about a group of women tied together through shared place and friendship. Each of the six actresses in this production brought a unique pizzazz to their characters and connected extremely well to each other, creating a very believable feeling of shared love and friendship.
Though the nature of the script linvolves little movement (the entirety of the play takes place in Truvy’s beauty parlor), the camaraderie between the women and the homegrown, soft nature of the setting readily invited audiences to immerse themselves in the play. The chemistry between the six ladies was so strong that there was little need for any drastic changes or grandiose aesthetics. Director Steven Walanka did a fine job in creating a welcoming, very local beauty parlor while allowing it to be a place where various personalities come together to gossip and brood over the daily drama of their small town.
The show itself was done almost in the round, wherein the audience members had the opportunity to sit on three sides of the stage. This seating enabled audience members to really feel as though this local Louisiana beauty parlor was alive, since the characters could move about the set as though it were real. This more unconventional presentation of the play enabling the characters a greater usage of all parts of the stage, created a very realistic portrayal of this play.
From my standpoint (that of a girl in a modern big city), really there is not a lot that happens in this play, aside from the blatant changes in Shelby’s life and the subsequent reactions from the women around her--regarding her marriage, pregnancy, and failing kidney. Despite this, SSP’s production found a way to make the relative lack of movement and momentum document-worthy, both for these women themselves, who are used to this type of lifestyle and who actually find it all to be a big deal, as well as for the audience. Director Steven Walanka brings to life this small-town clique of women in a way that glues you to their somewhat simple lifestyle and makes you feel like you are actually there with them.
Tricia Rogers (Truvy) the owner of the beauty parlor, had just the right amount of grace and charm and energy to make her the perfect host and owner of the local beauty parlor. Her well-tailored, fashionable clothing and well-manicured physical appearance, combined with her own pizzazz and energy made her an incredibly likeable character capable of bringing friends together and engaging in lots of gossip.
Kaitlyn Whitebread (Annelle) played the part of the scatter-brained, nervous, yet sentimental young newbie with sincerity and animation. Her nasly, shaky voice, looming (tall) presence, and physical manifestations of awkwardness added to the overall quirkiness of her character, distinguished her well from the other, veteran ladies of the town. Margaret Scrantom played the role of Shelby delightfully.
Scrantom gave her character the freshness and wide-eyed view of the world that many of the older characters lacked (due to age and experience), which enabled a special relationship to form between her and her more senior counterparts. Shelby’s beauty and youth earned her much attention and care from her mother’s friends, all of whom became reenergized and excited by the freshness of Shelby’s life. Scrantom forged very believable relationships with her counterparts on stage, with each relationship keeping true to the content of the script---a warm relationship with peer Annelle, a loving yet more tenuous relationship with her mother, M’Lynn, and a more convivial, deep-rooted friendship with each of her mother’s friends. Jill Chukerman Test (M’Lynn)’s subdued nature and overall conservative appearance suited her well as the mother on stage. She balanced out Shelby’s high energy and enthuse, as well as patiently and calmly reacted to the hype all of M’Lynn’s friends relayed on her regarding the exciting events in her daughter’s life. Her composure and ease was much needed to contrast the more vigorous nature of the other characters. The relationship between M’Lynn and Shelby was itself interesting to watch and could have been a play on its own. Their chemistry on stage was palpable, and together, they aptly reflected the often changing hot and cold nature of a mother and daughter relationship.
Kate O’Conner (Ouiser Boudreaux), the most impatient and tightly-wound of all the women, balanced well her more devilish, impulsive nature with her warm and caring side, allowing her to both fit in well with her neighbors and friends, but also to stand out as the token bitch. Her slightly intimidating nature on stage fully lived up to the descriptions the other women remarked of her, both behind and in front of her back.
Deborah Rodkin (Clairee), too, played her role very believably , as both the warm, supportive listener and friend but also as the lady fervently committed to staying on top of all the gossip.
Overall, the casting was done just right, and each character came forth with a unique personality that made what could have been be a pretty staid play, captivating.
What stood out most to me in this play was the deep friendship harbored between these ladies, and their unequivocal love for the local women-centric beauty shop. Having lived in a city all my life, I have never experienced this kind of deep-felt connection to a place, nor to a clear and bounded group of people. Living within a society of multitudinous choices and ever-growing opportunities, I have always been on-the-run and in the midst of an ever changing circle of friends. As a result of my own personal experience (and probably one shared by many other audience members), this small town felt foreign to me, as did the incredible intimacy between this group of lifelong friends. But I was delighted by the way in which this play fully transported me to someplace new. It gave me an idea of a very different way of life, one that I admire for its comfort and simplicity and for its citizens’ strong ethos of dependability and loyalty.
In addition to friendship, another thing that stood out for me was the strength of these women. They are resilient and are able to harbor a gratiating life of their own, without the domineering presence of men. Men do not appear in this play at all, and we are thus able to focus on the way in which a female circle of friends can be highly empowering and enriching.
SSP’s small, community production succeeds in relaying the good-natured messages of playwright Robert Harling, and in inviting audience members in to partake of the daily life of this group of fun Louisianan ladies.
Steel Magnolias runs April 29 through May 22, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., at St. Bonaventure, 1625 W. Diversey, at Marshfield just west of Ashland, in Chicago. Free parking is available in two lots. Tickets are $15, $10 for students with valid IDs and $7 for seniors and children younger than 12. Group rates also are available. All programming is subject to change. For information, call 773-404-7922 or visit saintsebastianplayers.org.
Photos by John Oster