Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
One of the biggest assets in the show is the extremely appealing cast, and what's especially nice about this group is that nobody tries to steal focus. Instead, each actress gets to make her mark in the show, while also functioning as part of an outstanding ensemble. On David Lewis' intricate and delightful set of a beauty parlor, Steel Magnolias captures our attention immediately.
The first character the audience sees is Truvy Jones, portrayed by the excellent Jill Taylor Anthony; it is Truvy who runs the beauty parlor. Anthony can be both sassy and sweet and she helps anchor the show throughout the two hour running time (with an intermission). Also doing well is the endearing Liza Couser as the initially insecure and quiet Annelle, whom Truvy hires to be a beautician at the beginning of the play. Couser is quite fine and her character makes perhaps the biggest change during the play, starting off achingly unsure of herself before finding salvation through both religion and the friendships she makes at the beauty parlor.
Susan Slotoroff, who was so good in Playhouse on Park's recent staging of Unnecessary Farce, is even better here in the somewhat tragic role of Shelby. As Steel Magnolias begins, preparations are being made for Shelby's wedding, and the playwright is able to convey the various health problems this character is suffering from. Still, Slotoroff keeps Shelby from ever becoming sappy or sentimental through her sheer drive to live and her commitment to seeing the brighter side of every situation. As Shelby's mother, M'Lynn, Jeannie Hines initially takes a backseat to the idiosyncrasies of the other women onstage, and this becomes an asset when she delivers an impassioned and moving scene in the second act. Since the character of M'Lynn, at times, can recede into the background of the play, her ultimate prominence near the conclusion is made all the more powerful and surprising.
Rounding out the cast are two actresses who generate the real belly laughs and humor in the show. As Clairee, Dorothy Stanley is a joy and she makes the most of all the devastatingly funny lines she delivers throughout the play. I saw Stanley do terrific work on Broadway in revivals of Show Boat and La Cage aux Folles and it is splendid to rediscover her talents here. As Ouiser, Peggy Cosgrave is a scream and is quite formidable, as she adds a down-to-earth feeling that keeps the play from ever feeling overly melodramatic. Indeed, director Susan Haefner keeps the production moving at a brisk pace and her work with her cast is exemplary.
Add in the ideal contributions of costume designer Kate Bunce and lighting designer Christopher Bell, and the show overwhelms with good will and pleasure. There is a line in Steel Magnolias about "laughing through the tears" and that pretty much sums up Playhouse on Park's production: by presenting an equal amount of both hilarity and humanity, this show maintains just the right balance and comes out a winner.
Steel Magnolias, at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford CT through January 28, 2018. For tickets, please visit www.playhouseonpark.org or call the box office at 860-523-5900.