The Column Online



by Robert Harling

Dallas Theater Center

Directed by Joel Farrell
Scenic Design by Dahlia Al-Habieli
Costume Design by Karen Perry
Sound Design by Melanie Chenn Cole
Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand
Wig Design by Valerie Gladstone

Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie --- Tiana Kaye Blair
Annelle Dupuy-Desoto --- Ana Hagedorn
Truvy Jones --- Liz Mikel
Ouizer Boudreaux --- Sally Nystuen Vahle
M’Lynn Eatenton --- Christie Vela
Clairee Belcher --- Nance Williamson

Reviewed Performance: 10/3/2018

Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

“Because what is art other than taking the pieces around you and re-forming them into some vision that satisfies you and enriches others?” Robert Harling

A wedding, birth, and death are universal experiences. Put those together with lots of pithy, witty comments and put downs, and pull it all together with an example of the strength of women in crises, and you have a story that people all over the world have loved for years. “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” as Truvy says. Robert Harling’s play about the death of his sister, is set in Truvy’s Beauty Spot located in a town somewhere in Northwest Louisiana. (Actually, Harling lived in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and the popular movie version was filmed there.)

What a pleasure it is to experience live theater at its best, when six wonderful actresses come together under expert direction, and with stellar production values, to give us a familiar, warm, funny, tragic, and inspiring story. Sitting in the audience for Steel Magnolias at the Dallas Theater Center is to be enveloped by pure professionalism, the difficult made to look effortless, with dedication and love of craft visible every instant. These six women are all totally immersed in their characters with never a false step taken. Wearing ‘80s clothes and hair, these artists take us to a place at once familiar, and yet made new by their skill. They play out their story on a pop-up valentine of a set, entirely appropriate for Mr. Harling’s love story about his sister.

As a native Louisianian, I can assure you that even in the mid-1980’s when the play was written and is set, no beauty salon in Louisiana would have had a clientele composed of black, white and brown women. (The play did air with an all African-American cast on Lifetime TV in 2012) Thankfully, since this is 2018, the #MeToo movement is in full swing, and the Dallas Theatre Center often does “non-traditional” casting, we can enjoy a multi-ethnic, gloriously acted production of this favorite, featuring a bouquet of some of the best actresses around.

Dallas favorite Liz Mikel plays Truvy, “Honey, there is so much static electricity in here, I pick up everything but boys and money!” the owner of the beauty parlor where all of the action takes place. Ms. Mikel’s larger than life persona suits Truvy’s character as she welcomes each familiar face with warmth and humor, and shows us some true Southern hospitality with her easy acceptance of newcomer Annelle. Played by Ana Hagedorn, “I promise that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair!” every stage of Annelle’s arc as a character is given sharp and clearly defined goals, from eager, tentative novice , through a more outgoing stage to finally settling in a religious devotion. Each stage of her development helps the audience access the passage of time and better understand the family these women create with each other. Both actresses make the exposition of the opening scene painless and even involving.

Nance Williamson personifies the wry, perceptive aspects of aristocratic Clairee Belcher’s character with a dry, smiling delivery and natural grace that anchors the group. “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.” Ouizer Boudreaux, the Tabasco accent in this jambalaya of women, is given riotous life by the wonderful Sally Nystuen Vahle who makes her first entrance like a tornado coming through the door. “I’m not crazy,…I’ve just been in a very bad mood for forty years!”

Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie, the stand-in for Harling’s sister, is given a lovely characterization by Tiana Kaye Blair. “I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” Sweet without being saccharine, funny, and most of all brave, each stage of her tragic story rings true in Ms. Blair’s capable hands. Her anchor and support system is played by Christie Vela as M’Lynn, Shelby’s mother, and the personification of our story’s title. “I realize as a woman how lucky I am. I was there when that wonderful creature drifted into my life, and I was there when she drifted out. It was the most precious moment of my life.” Ms. Vela is right in step every moment, and her final outburst is devastating. “Laughter through tears,” indeed! Together these actresses show us the strength women possess both individually, and, when needed, as a group. Magnolias are elegant and lovely to look at, smell sweet, and can bruise easily. But like these women, they appear year after year, often in unexpected places, strong and resilient, bringing beauty even in the swamps and low places, shining brightly through the shadows of the Spanish moss-covered branches.

As mentioned, Dahlia Al-Habieli’s set is a gorgeous piece of design work, reminiscent of a valentine, with lacy edges that extend to the floor surrounding the folded out thrust stage. Using a stylized floral pattern (magnolia?) for the cut-out work proscenium, and for the patterned floor and walls, the environment created is at once realistic and wildly romantic. A tangible, visible extension of the story itself. Warm and lush lighting by Annie Wiegand complements the scenic design and the costumes, and also subtly shifts to establish time, mood, and shift focus when needed. Melanie Chen Cole’s sound design includes music, and gun shots, and extends to radio broadcasts, used during scene changes to establish time passage.

Costume’s by Karen Perry are 80’s inspired, and tell us who the characters are by their very color, texture, and style. Ms. Perry seems to have had a great time choosing the wardrobe these women exhibit, some brilliantly over the top, and others quietly giving us information of time and place, with choices that expand the character’s personality. Ms. Perry uses several instances of floral patterns in the costume choices, reinforcing the overall flower motif of the production. In a show largely about hair, wig design by Valerie Gladstone obviously plays a large role, and Ms. Gladstone’s creations don’t disappoint. Like the costumes, the hair choices illuminate the characters for us.

Joel Ferrell knows his way around a stage, and as his directorial assignments routinely show us, knows how to handle actors to get their very best performances. Dialogue overlaps realistically, focus is always clear, beats build as they should, and every payoff is solidly landed. He creates stage pictures that tell the story as much as the words do, and unfolds moments of humor and pathos effortlessly. The story is clear, the sub-text is there, and the audience relaxes, secure in the knowledge that they are in the most capable of hands. AND, he figures out how to incorporate all that HAIR business!

In first hearing that the Dallas Theatre Center would be doing Steel Magnolias, my first reaction was, “Why?” Why do this old chestnut that every community theater and many high schools have done for years? This seemed to me an odd choice for this theater group. Having seen the production, I don’t really care why the play was chosen, I’m only glad that it was. The relevance of a story of the resilience of women – “nevertheless, she persisted” – and the opportunity to see these iconic roles in the hands of these particular artists, is an opportunity not to be missed. There’s so much to love about the show. There are great little physical comic bits, and watch for the small touches like Dolly Parton’s picture on the magazine cover, the magnolia in the Christmas wreath, etc, etc, etc. By the way, if you think the Christmas decorations are over-done, you should know that Natchitoches, LA is famous for its Christmas celebration that features its holiday light show, all reflected in the Cane River.

Don’t pass up a chance to revel in the excellence that is Steel Magnolias as presented by the Dallas Theatre Center. Share the human condition, and be heartened by the strength and love that pour from the stage. Plus, you’re gonna laugh your butt off!

Dallas Theater Center
Wyly Theater
2400 Flora Street
Dallas, TX 75201

Final Performance October 21st, 2018

Ticket Prices $20 - $101, subject to change.

For tickets and information: Box Office - 214-880-0202