BY STEVE WONG
There are many good things to be said about Spartanburg Little Theatre’s current production of “Steel Magnolias,” but one near and dear to this Carolinian’s heart is hearing southern accents spoken well. Thank you, SLT for the wisdom to consult with Dialect Coach Miranda Barnett. There’s hardly anything worse than to sit through a performance of actors (especially British actors!) butchering the beautiful subtleties of the southern drawl.
Considering the cast of six women who gossip, support and cry for each other, laugh out loud, confess, endure, and triumph in Truvy Jones’s backyard beauty parlor, we should certainly expect convincing enunciations. All of the actors are daughters of Dixie, some a little more so than others.
It’s hardly fair to peg any one of these women as the “leading” actor in a play where all six characters are vitally important to the story. But it is safe to say the story revolves around the marriage, motherhood, sickness, and eventual death of Shelby Eatenton, played by Christiana Reübert, a young woman with theatre credits at Foothills Playhouse, Centre Stage, and Upstate Shakespeare Festival.
Like all of the women in the show, Christiana is having to endure the unfair but unavoidable human tendency to compare her local stage performance to that of celebrated international actor Julia Roberts, who was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress in the 1989 film of the same name.
Not to worry, Reübert, like modern southern women are said to be, is the epitome of youthful spunk, not to be held back by tradition, social pressure, or even chronic illness. Shelby is a woman who sets her sights and pursues her dreams with grace and grit, and Reübert can be proud of her acting that required bittersweet moments of the mother/daughter relationship, as well as the distastefulness of being a Type 1 diabetic having a hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) attack.
Shelby’s mother, M’Lynn Eatenton, is played by Candace Stimpson, who is making her SLT debut in this reserved and tightly wound character, who is not without humor. The film role was taken by Sally Field, who will forever be remembered for her delayed emotional breakdown when confronted with her daughter’s death. Stimpson carries herself with professional poise and a no-nonsense attitude that helps her endure tragedies both big and small, from finally letting her heart bleed over the death of her daughter to ignoring her husband’s bird-killing hobby. It is those final moments of building despair that M’Lynn joins her girlfriends in the unabashed sorrow of acknowledging the death of her daughter. On opening weekend, there were tears on the stage; there were tears in the audience.
Those tears, however, were gratefully short lived thanks to the comic-relief timing of real-life friends and actors Teresa Hough and Valerie Barnet. Hough plays Ouiser Boudreaux, the town’s rich and cranky old woman, which was played by Shirley MacLaine in the film. Barnet plays Clairee Belcher, who is also financially well off but maintains her respectable social standing through quick wit and common sense. That role was played by Olympia Dukakis in the film.
As characters, Ouiser and Clairee often cross each other’s path with wonderful one-liners and insights into the absurdities of small town southern life. But it is when a grieving mother is at her breaking point that the actors Hough and Barnet step in to help us “laugh through the tears.” Their moment in the spotlight when Barnet literally throws Hough within punching range of a grief-stricken mother, will be one of local theatre’s scenes-to-remember for years to come.
Rounding out the cast and making darn sure things don’t get too serious are Lori Guthrie playing the busty and big-talking cosmologist Truvy Jones and her sidekick, the shy and impressionable apprentice Annelle Dupuy-Desoto, played by Caroline Bosworth. In the film, Truvy was played by Dolly Parton, and Annelle was played by Darryl Hannah. Truvy is a no-holds-barred kind of gal. She speaks her mind, but she’s lovable and giving, and is the one character in the show you’ll never find hard to remember, maybe because of her big hair or some other big endowments. Like any actress worth her salted pork, Guthrie doesn’t hold back in her interpretation of her character. She lets her rip.
Annelle, on the other hand, is girl out of place and out of step, just trying to find her own path. Bosworth obviously works the art of subtle acting. She may not have the most lines in the play, when she speaks, everyone stops to listen; and what she has to say is in one way or the other the right message for the moment.
The film version of “Steel Magnolias” will probably forever overshadow any stage production no matter how good it might be. When six superstars align, what do you expect? Yet, it is the simpler, more intimate stage performance that hits you where it truly hurts to laugh.
STL, these six women, and director Tim Baxter-Ferguson have accomplished what live theatre is meant to do: tell you a story that makes you feel more alive when you leave than when you arrived.
“Steel Magnolias” continues through March 18 at Chapman Cultural Center, 200 East Saint John St. in Spartanburg. Some shows are sold-out so please check the box office for availability at (864) 542-2787 or visit http://www.chapmanculturalcenter.org.