People who are familiar only with the film which appeared two years after the play premiered off-Broadway in 1987 will already know the arc of the story and much of the dialogue, but they'll be surprised by the play's ambience. The film has always felt sanitized in spite of all its expert histrionics, whereas Caldwell's new production is gritty. If you were to find yourself in a factual homegrown beauty salon in small-town Louisiana in the mid-1980s, that salon would probably have looked a lot like the Caldwell's version of Truvy's beauty shop in Chinquapin, and it may well have contained the kind of loose sisterhood rendered in Steel Magnolias.
Truvy's is the demesne of Truvy Jones, played at Caldwell by Elizabeth Dimon, a blustery sage with extreme rough edges. One gets the sense that under the gruffness, she's a pretty fragile lady whose prime defense is her ability to toss off homespun aphorisms for all occasions (the classic being "there's no such thing as natural beauty"). The play is set entirely in her salon, where a group of regulars come to gossip and vent. Annelle Dupuy-Desoto, played by Margery Lowe, is a jumpy new hire who has just arrived in town after being ditched by her husband and left penniless. Angie Radosh plays Clairee, the affluent, somewhat dotty widow of Chinquapin's former mayor and the unlikely best friend of grouchy Ouiser Boudreaux, portrayed by Pat Nesbit in gleeful ill temper (key line: "I'm not crazy: I've just been in a bad mood for 40 years.").
The story centers around the relationship of M'Lynn Eatentonn (Laura Turnbull) and her daughter, Shelby (Lisa Manuli), who suffers from Type 1 Diabetes. The latter is headstrong, determined to let no collusion of fates keep her from living as she sees fit. And though the plot of Steel Magnolias primarily follows Shelby's marriage and subsequent decision to have a baby in spite of her doctors' warnings, those and all other narrative developments are ultimately tangential. At base, Steel Magnolias exists to show these women at ease. In the second act, in the wake of terrible personal tragedy, one of the characters arrives at the salon and says, "This morning, I wanted to come here more than anything." Steel Magnolias is a long-form demonstration of how and why anybody could feel that way about a place like Truvy's.
In spite of effective acting, one eventually gets the feeling that this production lacks a certain sensitivity. Steel Magnolias was never supposed to be a period piece, some anthropological study of primitive Southerners in their natural habitat, but either the script has aged in such a way or a quirk of Michael Hall's direction has nudged the play in that direction. It creeps up in only a few select moments, but it's irksome all the same. For example: When Margery Lowe, the battered new girl, first appears, she's so transparently helpless that you half expect her to curl into a fetal position beneath the shampoo sink, sucking her thumb. A similar character would never appear this way if the show were set in, say, New York. Such a broad-stroke portrayal of "the frightened/ignorant/ desperate girl" seems like the product of a basically pejorative view of the Deep South. If it doesn't bother you, maybe it's because you share that particular prejudice. In truth, it didn't bother me, and the easy bias of such a portrayal revealed itself only in retrospect. I felt a little guilty, and a little mad, that Caldwell made bias so palatable.
In large part, the moments that speak clearly of Chinquapin's essential provinciality are the ones that most effectively communicate the textures of these women's lives. On Annelle's first day at the salon, when she's fetching towels from another room and Truvy exclaims to Clairee that her new hire is a "woman with a story," the glee in Truvy's voice makes it obvious that she and all of her regulars veritably live for that kind of material. Other such instances include Shelby's tears of joy? shame? shock? over her first short haircut, or when Shelby can't bring herself to use the word boyfriend when asking after the love life of Clairee's gay nephew.
From these few instances alone, the women's lives in Chinquapin are revealed almost in their totality: Long days years, in fact of sameness, made bearable and worthwhile by the ladies' keen interest in the pedestrian goings-on of their town and the flush of excitement they must feel whenever anything unexpected or novel happens. In most of this, there is no condescension whatsoever. Even if Steel Magnolias is now a period piece, if it now functions first and foremost as a portrait of a time and a place instead of a portrait of six particular people, that doesn't mean it's not a story worth telling. The ladies in Steel Magnolias have found two ways of attaining fulfillment or at least finding emotional sustenance: They first of all carry on their own personal struggles and try to make a go of whatever hands they've been dealt, and then they relive and make sense of those struggles in the found community of Truvy's. The first method is inescapable and universal, but the second is a dying art. The greatest and most lasting value of Steel Magnolias may be in making an argument that such found communities can be as sustaining here and now as they ever were in Chinquapin.