Review By Michelle Sutton
It is always risky to put on a production of a beloved play-turned-cult-classic-film, especially when that film stars Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts. Lane Cove Theatre Company’s production of Steel Magnolias takes this challenge on. Originally scheduled for the company’s 25th anniversary season in 2020, this show has been highly anticipated by the local community.
Written in 1987 by Robert Harling, Steel Magnolias is based on Harling’s real-life experience of losing his sister due to health complications from type 1 diabetes. The play was a record-breaking hit and turned into a film by 1989. Set in a fictional Louisiana small town full of southern charm, the play explores female strength and friendship through sharp and snappy dialogue.
The entire play takes place inside Truvy’s salon where the women congregate to have their hair done, get manicures, copy recipes and gossip. The set is delightfully eighties, with magazine photos of celebrities and supermodels rocking the trademark voluminous hairdos on the walls, bright pinks, greens and yellows on the floor and throughout the decor. There are hair rollers, sinks, blow dryers and coffee pots. The set is designed to feel busy and lived-in.
The entire success of the play hinges on the cast’s ability to make you believe their relationships and they do not quite make it there. Although the ensemble tackle their roles with an earnest approach, they fail to convey the chemistry of women whose lives have been entangled for decades. The script is entirely dialogue, witty, sarcastic, and fast-moving. It is through the women’s back and forth banter that their deep loyalty and affection for each other is revealed, it is through their humour and their gripes with each other that we see their history and the depth and breadth of their bonds. The actors do not seem to be able to settle into this quick back-and-forth pace, leading the play to drag. Although the set is colourful, bold and busy, the actors do not move through it with purpose. Unfortunately the energy is low and seems almost stagnant throughout the production. This could be attributed to the small space, as perhaps the close proximity of the audience to the performance stage could influence the actors to perform in a more reserved and subtle manner. However, Steel Magnolias is about melodramatic southern women, and the actors' performances could have been much more engaging if they injected more energy, exuberance and allowed themselves to just have a bit more fun! Even Annie March’s Truvy is sensible and composed when she could afford do be flamboyant and extravagant. The exception to this is Michelle Bellamy as Ouiser, who breathes fresh life into the play when she stomps through the door with her worried, bitter, ridiculous attitude bringing a new wave of energy and commitment. Bellamy makes the most of the hilarious oddball, outsider character of Ouiser and you can tell how much she is enjoying it. Carole Grace as Clairee, Ouiser’s best frenemy is dry and very funny in her back and forth with Ouiser.
Directed by Trent Gardiner, Lane Cove Theatre Company’s production of Steel Magnolias suffers from a lack of chemistry and energy. With the rhythm of the dialogue slightly off for the entire show, there is an absence of highs and lows which are necessary to make a show entirely built from dialogue dynamic and engaging. This is particularly noticeable in the first act which also has no music as the salon does not receive a radio until act two. Background music and greater focus on pacing may have greatly assisted the first act to come alive.
Steel Magnolias is an ambitious production for any theatre company to stage, as so many people are familiar with the iconic characters and story, setting expectations high. Lane Cove Theatre Company must be commended for persevering with this production even through the challenges of last year and for providing opportunities for the community to connect with live theatre.