The Column Online



Robert Harling

North Texas Performing Arts Repertory Theatre

Eileen Alger – M’Lynn
Kayla Anderson – Annelle
Naeaidria Callihan – Truvy
Suzy Dotson – Clairee
Doreen Hadsall – Ouiser
Reagan Martin – Shelby
Radio DJ Voice – Kolby Campbell

Director – Dusty Reasons Thomas
Stage Manager – Elizabeth Loyle Carr
Light and Sound Design - -Brianna Turner
Set Design – Jo Alamares
Costumes – Dusty Reasons Thomas
Tech – Brianna Turner, Elizabeth Loyle Carr
Scenic Painter – Kerri Simpson

Reviewed Performance: 4/12/2019

Reviewed by Stacey Upton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Odds are, you have seen this play, or the movie version of it. It’s based on a true story. Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias to cope with his sister’s passing after she died from complications related to diabetes in 1985. It was an instant hit on Broadway when it opened in 1987 and ran for 1126 performances. It also became a hit movie featuring a fantastic cast of well-known stars and a newcomer actress named Julia Roberts, and earned Roberts her first Oscar nomination.

It’s been performed many times in community theatres since. Remarkably the play holds up 34 years after its debut. The combination of hilarious lines, great characters that resonate as real women, and true pathos make it a winner when it is done right. This cast does it right. The play is very funny – laugh out loud and long funny -- in much of the proceedings, with a dose of pathos that had many wiping away a tear.

Our audience was packed on opening night, squeezed into Willow Bend’s Egelston Akers black box on two sides of the inventive set, making for an intimate if somewhat uncomfortable evening. From the opening moments as the actresses playing Truvy and Annelle sprayed hairspray with abandon as they zipped through their lines, hitting all the jokes but retaining the reality of their characters, it was clear this was going to be a top-notch rendition of this beloved and well-known play.

There are characters in Steel Magnolias, notably Annelle and Clairee, who are slightly less showy than the other women. Their voices can become lost. Not so in this production. Kayla Anderson plays Annelle with child-like high energy, often bouncing right off of the ground as she excitedly takes in her new job and new friends. Her work is grounded in the secrets that Annelle carries early on in the play, and Anderson does a superb job of making this normally superficial character leap to life. In the second act, Annelle has found Jesus, and Annelle plays this version of the character well too, just gratingly enough that the other women have something to roll their eyes about, but allowing us to see that for Annelle, her passion comes from a true place, evident in her lovely speech about where Shelby has come to rest. It’s beautiful, memorable work.

Clairee can often become a second older-woman banana to the hilarious Ouiser, but elegant Suzy Dotson holds her ground and then some in this production. You believe she is both a vocal fan of football as well as a wealthy ex-Mayor’s wife – Dotson is able to convey both these aspects of Clairee with ease. She gets her zingers in, as well. You can tell she is winding up with glee to get another score on Ouiser, but that underneath it, she just loves her friend to pieces. She sparkles when the attention is on her, and then graciously gives ground when it is not. It was a delight to watch her performance.

Naeaidria Callihan plays Truvy with an extra dose of sass that makes this central character pop. Callihan’s rapid-fire delivery of her lines gave energy to the entire production – and there was meaning and a life under all of them. Callihan brilliantly improved a few lines as well to the delight and laughter of the audience. Truvy can come across as a one-note gal, but in Callihan’s hands she was a savvy businesswoman with a huge and generous heart for her friends. She did a fantastic updo on Shelby in front of us as well, kudos for this performance.

Reagan Martin as young bride-to-be and later as devoted mother fighting for her life Shelby was fresh in the role. She chose to have a tart, almost combative relationship with her mother, fighting to not be coddled, to be who she chooses to be. It was a wonderful interpretation of this role. Martin’s Shelby is not delicate of mind, spirit or heart – it is sadly only her body that is not up to a long-term task. Martin hit the delicate balance of loving her mom and being annoyed with her perfectly. As her mother, M’Lynn, Eileen Alger was stalwart, her lower-register voice a perfect foil to the women bantering around her. Alger conveyed that as much as she enjoys life and her friends, worrying about her daughter and above all, trying to protect her has become her keynote. M’Lynn is a fearsome rock of a role that many an actress has crashed and burned upon. Alger climbed that rock fearlessly, and her delivery of the second act monologue was stunning. Raw and vulnerable, brittle with her grief, Alger soared, and took us with her.

Ouiser is a hilarious role filled with quips and one-liners that carries deep within it a sensitive woman who grows tomatoes to give to her friends even if she doesn’t like them herself. Returning from 25 years away from the stage, Doreen Hadsall plunges into the prickly, feisty single-by-choice woman with gusto. Hadsall does a good job with this needed acerbic voice in the play, and is wonderfully present every moment she is onstage.

All of these women are excellent actors, and have been well-directed by Dusty Reasons Thomas. The ensemble work is top notch as the women swirl around each other on the interesting set. Thomas clearly knows her stuff, as she has brought out the nuances of emotion in the play, and really helped her actresses find multiple dimensions in their roles. No matter if they were speaking or not, these actresses were firmly entrenched in their roles and the reality of the moment every moment they were onstage. It’s always so nice to see a cast so devotedly for and with each other on the journey. Beautiful work all around.

Light and sound design by Brianna Turner was strong – using both practical lights and stage lighting to set tone and mood. Sound design will take you right back to the eighties. The set design by Jo Alamares has the audience entering into Truvy’s shop through the front door, and sitting on two sides of it. Occasionally sight lines were blocked, but not for long, as the clever levels of the set and the ¾ thrust blocking played to good advantage. You forgot you were in a theatre after a while in this intimate setting, and instead were just privy to six women going through good times and terrible times, all of them coated in love and acceptance for one another. This is an excellent night of theatre, a wonderful show. Congratulations to all!

Willow Bend Theatre of the Arts, Egelston Akers Black Box