By John Dwyer
What is steel?
It’s iron that has been blasted, and the impurities removed. But in the current production of “Steel Magnolias” at the Bucks County Playhouse, six iron women have been blasted by life, and what is left surprisingly is pure gold.
“Steel Magnolias” is a crowd-pleasing play, much like “On Golden Pond” from last season, and one that many will be familiar with from seeing the hit film version. But before the movie, there was the play, which I remember originally enjoying back in 1987 at the Lucille Lortel down in the Village.
It was and remains an odd combination of funny and sad. This was the first play of Robert Harling, who was in attendance on opening night, and is about the true life story of his sister Susan. The play was written over the 10-day period following his sister’s passing, and on the urging of his wife Kathy and playwright friend Michael Weller (who authored “Moonchildren” and the screen adaptation of “Hair”). The writing is honest, funny and reflective of the Southern, small town goodness of people coming together in hard times.
“Magnolias” is an ensemble piece with meaty roles for all the ladies who get their hair done at Truvy’s Hair Salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana. The play opens with Truvy (Elaine Hendrix) hiring a new hair stylist for the salon, Annell Dupuy (Lucy DeVito), just as the town is getting ready for the marriage of local hometown sweetheart, Shelby Eatenton (Cleas Aslip) to Jackson Latcherie.
The plot revolves around Shelby’s unique type of diabetes, and how her delicate health affects her wedding, her chance at motherhood, and her biological and extended family. We soon learn that Annell was not so much hired for a salon, but adopted into a family where the salon is the local gathering place.
The rest of the cast includes M’Lynn (Patricia Richardson); Shelby’s concerned mother, Clarice Belcher (Susan Sullivan); the former mayor’s widow and cranky-but-lovable neighborhood curmudgeon, Ouiser Boudreaux (Jessica Walter).
Credit is due to the producers at the Playhouse and director Marsha Mason for assembling such an accomplished, star-studded cast. The central character of Shelby is a difficult role, as she balances determination to live a normal life with a difficult disease. Clea Aslip, formerly seen in “Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike” at Bucks County Playhouse, does a magnificent job. Her mother, M’Lynn Eatenton, is played by Patricia Richardson from TV’s “Home Improvement,” and her performance at the climax of the play breaks one’s heart in two.
Two regulars at the salon who are there through thick and thin are Clarice and Ouiser played to perfection respectively by Susan Sullivan (from ABC’s “Castle” and “Dharma and Greg”) and Jessica Walter (“Arrested Development”). Elaine Hendrix (FX’s “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll”) plays the affable Truvy , the salon owner with a Southern graciousness and charm that makes the shop into a special gathering place. And Lucy DeVito was absolutely delightful as Annelle, the high charged, good-hearted, but loosely-hinged hair styling assistant.
Brilliant casting and great ensemble acting don’t just happen. Congratulations to Marsha Mason as director for making this production of “Steel Magnolias” the most beautiful arrangement possible. The set by Lauren Helpern and the costumes by Nicole V. Moody are pitch perfect. This is a “Steel Magnolias” not to be missed. It is hard to imagine it being done any better.
For full details, and to purchase tickets, visit the Playhouse online, call (215) 862-2121, or visit the box office at 70 S. Main St. in New Hope.
The production will play the following schedule: Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 p.m., Thursdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. The show runs through June 18.