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By Robert Harling

Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players

Director: Becki Esch
Assistant Director & Lights: Courtney Mitchell
Costumes: Marcie Allison
Props & Set Design: Stacey Greenawalt
Set Construction: Josh Garner
Lighting Design: Cameron Barrus
Sound: Mik Brown
Backstage: Mallory Sellers

Caren Ricke - Shelby
Kate Hicks - M'Lynn
Stacey Greenawalt - Truvy
Noelle Mitchell - Annelle
Shauna Lewis - Ouiser
Gale Nelsen-Gilbert - Clairee
D.J. (Voiceover) - Andrew Guzman

Reviewed Performance: 9/24/2016

Reviewed by LK Fletcher, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Darlin’. It’s the 1980s. In Louisiana. At Truvy’s beauty shop — motto: “There is no such thing as natural beauty” — the women are all sass and brass. Through clouds of hairspray and over the buzz of blow dryers, six southern spitfires gather each week to gossip and support each other through thick and thin. But those bonds are about to be tested when M’Lynn and her daughter Shelby face a life-changing event. Infused with heart and humor, Steel Magnolias is a hilarious story of love, loss, and enduring friendship.

Steel Magnolias (comedy–drama) is a perennial favorite play in repertory theaters since it first debuted off-Broadway in 1987. Written by Robert Harling, the story is based on his experience with his sister's death. The title suggests the "female characters are as delicate as magnolias but as tough as steel". Whatever the case, there are few more perfect titles to celebrate the talents of women than a play centered on six Southern spitfires with an enviable gift for one-liners, among the greatest the unforgettable epigram uttered by Clairee Belcher, Grande dame of Chinquapin Parish, the fictional Louisiana burg where "Steel Magnolias" is set: "The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize."

The action of the play, takes place entirely within the confines of Truvy’s aquamarine colored beauty shop, the aerosol-clouded haunt where Clairee, widow of the town's former mayor, and her relentlessly witty friends meet for color, cuts and quips. The story centers around six women, a rarity on the American stage, even in 2016. Unlike the big-screen version, one of the top 20-grossing movies of 1989 that launched Julia Roberts from the charming indie obscurity of "Mystic Pizza" to A-list stardom, there are no men in Robert Harling's original script.

Though "Magnolias" has long been dismissed as a chick-flick, (in both the film version and on stage) rather than a universal story about love and loss told through a female lens, Harling found inspiration for those oft-quoted wisecracks in the women he knew and loved growing up in little Natchitoches, Louisiana. It is very easy for the production to fall victim to sentimental slop. But.

Managing the arc of the play and rhythms of each scene is detailed work for any director. Becky Esch who was at the helm of two GCCP back-to-back productions had her work cut out for her. With only four weeks of rehearsal time to put up a fast paced, comic piece with miles of dialogue for all six actresses this was quite the challenge. I had the opportunity to see the show closing weekend. The very talented cast presented a show that at times was a bit slow. Actors were still at times struggling with lines and the show ran long. My perspective is just that- I have directed the show twice and seen it many times and have an opinion that is merely that- an opinion. The Cleburne audience was thoroughly entertained, and rightfully so, of what was a well done albeit relaxed production.

Becky Esch, who I had the honor of speaking with following the show, is passionate about her cast and her local theater company. Carnegie Players has a fine pool of outstanding actors and an incredibly supportive community of sponsors and donors. Ms. Esch has a great deal of energy and flair she brings to GCCP and it is a great model for effective community theater. She delivered a warm, clever and highly performative show.

The resonance of the written material –often described as “The funniest play to make you cry” – was obvious in Steel Magnolias. The cast worked well to create a sense of actual conversation, down to how people interrupt each other and switch streams of thought mid-conversation. The characters don’t get along perfectly, but live in a web of relationships where pushing, tugging, and pushback have been going on for a long time. Managing the arc of the play and rhythms of each scene is difficult and the drama of six women often peaked a little two early in Act One. Part of this is an abundance of superfluous one-liners that deny its own importance. The best and brightest writing and performing of the piece is in the last twenty minutes, and it is worth waiting for.

Caren Ricke is memorable as the fragile Shelby, whose diabetes threatens her life. In spite of the danger, Shelby goes ahead with the pregnancy which ultimately kills her. She explains, “I’d rather have 30 minutes of special than a lifetime of ordinary.”

Stacey Greenawalt as Truvy the beauty shop owner brings a folksy touch, a genuine warmth and a twinkle in her eye to each scene. She will be welcoming you to Chinquapin in the first moments of the play. Owner, hostess, and confidante for this circle, she shows great heart.

Kate Hicks who plays Shelby’s mother M’Lynn, a difficult role since her obvious frustration with Shelby’s stubbornness hides the depth of her concern. M’Lynn knows that the doctors have warned Shelby not to get pregnant, which makes her angry response to the news understandable. Hicks’s dramatic final scene made everyone in the audience flinch with empathy for her agonized grief.

Noelle Mitchell’s Annelle blossoms from shy stranger into religious convert with warmth and conviction. She is wonderfully attentive on stage and a strong ensemble player. MS. Mitchel was absolutely engaging. The dynamic duo of the evening were Gale Nelsen-Gilbert as Clairee and her frenemy (friend-enemy) Ouiser (Shauna Lewis) who brought a mixture of sarcastic humor and surprising warmth that come to light throughout the play in two of the finest community theater performances I have seen this year. The ladies were show-stealers.

Stacey Greenawalt’s set design creates a space that is meant for women, a place where they can come together and open up without the fear that their husbands might come by and spoil the fun. The boxed set is a gentle blend of 1970’s colonial furniture, 1980’s aquamarine wallpaper, a trimline phone and the timeless accoutrements of the local beauty salon.

Cameron Barrus’s soft lighting complements this idea and shows hints of passing seasons and time, while Mik Brown’s sound design gives us a closer look at the characters through the music they choose to play. (Lots of Elvis and Rick Springfield!) Marcie Allison’s costumes add to each character’s personality, from Truvy’s bold peplum jackets and tight pants—to the fashion-conscious Shelby’s. I returned from the show highly motivated to purge my closet as too many of my personal clothing choices I still wear look like 1987.

Critics have voiced that "Steel Magnolias" isn't great literature, and that's no lie. It is not great literature, but it is a great story, and it is well told by Becky Esch and her company – about love and loss and how we all have to live with the choices we make, something a helluva lot easier to do with good, clever girlfriends around.

Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players
Performances in Cleburne Conference Center Theater
1501 W. Henderson Cleburne, Texas
Note: Show closed on September 25, 2016