at the Royal-George Theatre

In his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder sought meaning in the deaths of a group of unrelated people killed in the collapse of a mountain bridge. Robert Harling’s play Steel Magnolias focuses on the death of one young woman, but the aim is the same. Inspired by a tragedy in the playwright’s own family, Magnolias probes for universal truth in the specific story of a young diabetic who dies after giving birth. Its tools in this probe are strength, honesty, and great reserves of humor.

Shelby Eatenton is a southern belle for the 80s, a perky, pink-on-pink kind of gal. She’s gutsy, reckless, often impulsive, and often thoughtless, the sort who competed in the local beauty pageant by twirling a fire baton to the theme from Hawaii Five-O. As Steel Magnolias opens, it’s the day before Shelby’s marriage to a good ol’ southern boy, the type whose response to whatever comes his way is “shoot it, stuff it, or marry it.” Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn, are engaging in their usual friendly but not frivolous bickering, a continuous test of wills born of M’Lynn’s urge to protect her daughter and Shelby’s need to be independent. The issues in this ongoing conflict are often trivial–Shelby’s hairstyle, for instance. Shelby wants to use Princess Grace as a model, while M’Lynn is pushing Jaclyn Smith. The source of the conflict, however, is deep: Shelby, a diabetic who has required consistent care since childhood, resents the limitations of her body, and she reacts by rebelling against her mother’s guidance. “I’ve got to let her be strong,” says M’Lynn, a mental-health professional fully aware of the psychology behind her daughter’s behavior. But as M’Lynn learns, no one can let anyone be strong; one can only accept it if the other person is strong.

And Shelby is very strong indeed–strong-minded, certainly. Against the wishes of her mother and the advice of her doctors, she decides to have a baby. It is a decision that ultimately costs her her life (its further ramifications I’ll leave to the viewer to discover in the theater).

But Steel Magnolias isn’t concerned with death. It’s concerned with life–the continuity of life, the (dare I say it?) cosmic cycle of birth and death and nurturing that we are all part of it’s a study in the relationship between parent and child–the gift of life that each gives the other. This theme isn’t restricted to biological parenting: Steel Magnolias is filled with mother-daughter relationships in which the participants often trade roles back and forth.

The play is set in a small-town beauty parlor–women’s territory, no-man’s-land, an all-female enclave in which the women gather to trade recipes (“The Bisquick makes it so simple”), news clippings, and all-important gossip. Presiding over this holy sanctuary is Truvy Algood, hairstylist and priestess. Besides functioning as an all-around earth mother, Truvy is engaged in a surrogate-mother relationship with Annelle Dupuy, a waif who has come to Truvy for a job after being deserted by a no-good husband. (Male absence–through death, desertion, workaholism, or laziness–is a running theme.) Annelle’s reclamation from despair through Truvy’s ministrations and Shelby’s matchmaking is the play’s main subplot. Rounding out the sisterhood are two town dowagers, Clairee Belcher and Ouiser Boudreaux, whose eccentric bickering masks a deep loyalty and shared combativeness against the inevitability of old age. These two don’t go gentle anywhere.

Small lives, big themes: Steel Magnolias deals with both beautifully. There is no condescension here, only affection; no sitcom triviality or soap-opera bathos, only understanding. The play’s portrait of the quirkiness of southern behavior is authentic and well observed, its collection of hilarious one-liners always connected to character, its mixture of laughter and tears a little sloppy and therefore very real.

There are some problems with the production–at least on opening night, the acting lacked the deep connectedness between the characters that the script indicates, and Marcia Rodd as Truvy was losing too many good jokes through inadequate articulation and rushed timing. But time may remedy those problems, and in any case they are easily offset by the show’s considerable virtues: the solid core of strength projected by Anne Francis as M’Lynn, and the powerful effect of her climactic release of emotion; the sharp and playful interaction between Marji Bank as Ouiser and Roslyn Alexander as Clairee; Kaye Nottbusch’s costumes, including a series of humorously awful pink-on-pink ensembles for Shelby and some of the gladdest glad rags you’ve ever seen for the flamboyant Truvy; and Edward Gianfrancesco’s impeccably detailed beauty-parlor set. It’s all coordinated under the direction of Pamela Berlin, who has guided Harling’s remarkable play from its off-off-Broadway beginnings to the mainstream hit it deservedly is now.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.