Published On: Tue, Feb 26th, 2019

Guaranteed laughter and tears with ‘Steel Magnolias’ at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

Photo: Kasey Ivan

By John Dwyer

“Steel Magnolias” is a play and a movie that one can come back to time and again, and it works its magic.

You laugh and laugh at these iconic Southern ladies as they get their hair done at Truvy’s beauty salon, and then your heart breaks. And yes, you love it. It is cathartic because the one thing that conquers all is the love of family and friends. Those we love are those we laugh with in good times and cry with in bad, and there is plenty of both in this excellent, fun production at Music Mountain Theater, featuring some of the company’s favorite actresses.

This show is the very definition of an ensemble show. From the moment we see the effervescent Jill Palena as Truvy Jones onstage as she opens the shop, we know we are in good hands. Truvy has the best beauty shop in Chinquipan parish, Louisiana. She operates it out of her home, and locals come to get their hair done to talk. Regular appointments are made, so friend can gossip and find out what is happening with each other.

The setting is important, as the American beauty salon and barbershop were iconic places to go and bond with friends. It was true of my grandfather who went to Brownie’s, and my grandmother who went to Mary’s at a converted garage in a small town, not dissimilar to Truvy’s. And like the movies “Barbershop” and “Beauty Salon,” this play mines that special camaraderie that exists when you “let your hair down” to get your hair done.

Photo: Kasey Ivan

As the play opens, we see Truvy opening the shop. She has decided to hire Annelle Dupuy Desoto (Lauren Brader), an awkward, anxiety ridden young woman with a mysterious past. Regulars start arriving, which include ex-mayor’s wife and widow Clairee Berlcher (Anna Hentz) and town curmudgeon Ouiser Boudreaux (Joan Hoffman).

Though there is a subplot regarding Annelle’s past and her transformation that occurs after her hire, the main plot involves the marriage of Shelby Eatenton (Madison Kotnarowski). She is coming to get her hair done for the wedding in the first act with her mother M’Lynn Eatenton (Molly Logan). The play takes place over three years, and involves Shelby’s pregnancy which is threatened by her diabetes. The fun and gabfest of the Truvy’s salon becomes a protective cocoon, and one of the themes of the play is the importance of loving friendship.

With this strong cast, I knew I would be entertained. But what is still amazing is my reaction and that of the audiences. This show is very well known. I saw the original off Broadway at the Lucille Lortel, and again recently at Bucks County Playhouse. Like everyone, I saw the star-studded movie with Julia Roberts, in her second starring role. I know how this show rolls. I know the jokes and the story arc. And yet, with a good cast like this, it always works. Bring Kleenex. Truvy, Annelle, Clairee and Ouiser are the true friends we all hope and wish we have. With the excellent resident actresses that are part of this troupe, it easy believe that it is not just acting happening onstage, but real friends showing us how real friends come together.

Molly Logan as the stressed-out, loving mother, M’Lynn, is perfection. That I am reminded of Stockard Channing, while watching Logan, is no small compliment. Her strength and humor on display as M’Lynn as she acquiesces to Shelby’s choices, masks a deep heartbreak, and Logan is able to find all of that and puts it out there for us in an exceptional performance. Kotnarowski is equally strong as, ironically, the fragile Shelby in playing a woman with a strong will, but weak body.

Louis Palena has done a great job casting and directing this show, and kudos to Jared Williams and his construction and set design team for an incredible set. I am surprised that after the show, there aren’t lines to get a wash and cut or roots being touched up.

It is a scientific fact that one of the determinants of a long life is strong social connections. We should all yearn for the days of the beauty parlor and barbershop. If you have those strong connections, come and see this show to be reminded about how grateful you are for your friendships. If you don’t, then come to the show to be inspired to find your community. We all need to find our friends with whom we can share our ups and downs and expose our strengths and vulnerabilities. We all need our “Steel Magnolias.”

The show runs through March 3, and tickets are available online.

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