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Actors in the Steel Magnolias play, Purple Rose Theater

Steel Magnolias

Not the major motion picture

by Sally Mitani

From the March, 2015 issue

Last fall the newly resurrected Performance Network led with Driving Miss Daisy, most familiar as a 1980s sentimental Hollywood crowd-pleaser about the South. And now Purple Rose weighs in with Steel Magnolias, ditto: originally a stage play, it bloomed as a movie in the late Eighties, warm, weepy, and all Hollywooded up with an all-star cast. (Their order on the original movie poster is an interesting date-stamp on their star value at the time: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and, in last place, the newbie Julia Roberts.)

These two stage plays turning up in one season in our tiny local world of professional theater is still a head-scratcher for me. It seems like a craven attempt to attract an audience, any audience, by holding out the theatrical equivalent of a deep-fried Snickers bar.

But who doesn't like the occasional deep-fried Snickers bar? And sometimes the less familiar stage play behind a familiar Hollywood blockbuster turns out to have a little more meat on it. Certainly the case here: Steel Mag the play whups the hell out of Steel Mag the movie. And finally, to see Guy Sanville, who gravitates toward muscular man-filled plays, direct six women is a treat and a half.

Steel Magnolias the movie took place mostly in a small-town Louisiana beauty salon. The play takes place entirely there, and this little shift in vantage point is huge. Both versions move through exactly the same plot points, but while the movie is somewhat of a conventional multi-hankie melodrama about a girl who (spoiler alert) dies young, the play seems to want to examine and pay homage to something larger: how women view and shape the world, from birth to death. An arresting opening scene is loaded with iconography of the tragedy that is to come, and it's also a clever bait-and-switch. What could be safer and sweeter than a clutch of women in Miss Truvy's beauty salon having their hair done on

...continued below...

a young girl's wedding day? The bride is Shelby, whose colors are pink and dark pink. The women are trading sugar-drenched recipes. All the dangers seem to be outside, where gunshots are exploding as Shelby's father tries to scare the birds away from the wedding site. I knew the story, and still I braced myself for someone to burst in with the news that someone, perhaps the groom, had been shot. It doesn't happen. As anyone who saw the movie (one of the very first times we were exposed to Julia Roberts' braying laugh and some highly energetic scene-chewing) knows, the real peril is inside.

With a stellar cast, and under warmhearted, sincere direction, it's marred only by occasional strings of outdated jokes that seem to have wandered in from Petticoat Junction or Green Acres. Each character gets some genuinely funny lines, but most of them also have to beat their way through occasional thickets of cornpone cliche and cracker-barrel humor.

The show runs through March 14.     (end of article)

[Originally published in March, 2015.]


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