BY QUINN DAVIS
Steel Magnolias, by writer Robert Harling is a well known staple of southern cinema and stage, and has been beloved in this state since its first showing. Harling crafted the story as a means of dealing with the loss of his own sister, spinning grief into a tale of strong women, belly shaking laughs, and smiling through tears. Since its premiere in 1987, the production has seen multiple approaches and creative choices from casts across the globe.
The Mill Town Players production directed by Myra Greene was a refreshing interpretation, catching this reviewer utterly off guard. As someone who has seen multiple versions of the production, this cast’s effort will forever take the role of my new favorite telling of this story. I went in with the rather strict expectations, and from the moment the curtain rose, I was not disappointed. The stage alone, and the creative choices in set design were outstanding. From wall to wall, every inch of the stage is used and occupied by one of the most interactive and detailed sets (Abby Tripp Brown) I have ever seen, transporting the audience into the cozy confines of the beauty parlor in a snap. Further magic lies in the seamless lighting by Madison Wakefield, and its use in making even a mundane object, such as a radio, significant. The 80’s are on full, grand display, as seen in the bright, beautiful costuming (Kelsey Crews) and wonderfully done hairstyles. You could almost smell the Aqua-Net Hairspray.
The characters are brought to life masterfully by a stellar cast. Nancy Burkhard, Thelma Cope, Alyson Burrell, Janice Curtis, Melissa Sturgis, and Mary Nickles give such wonderful performances, it would be impossible to pin down a favorite among their characters. The boisterous and catty Clairee, the hilariously awkward Annelle, the relatable and pink obsessed Shelby, the doting Truvy, the curmudgeonly Ouiser and the long-suffering M’Lynn shine in every moment of the show. The delivery of every line is sharp, and full of southern charm. Showing that Harlings source material is in expert hands. The cast shifts from comedic banter to poignant, deep moments that grip the heart with ease. Through these moments, they keep the audience laughing despite themselves, helping us to find a smile, even when faced with a death.
The strong women of Chinquapin Parish bear the brunt of three years and the ups and downs those years bring. The women show a strength and bond able to weather any event from Anelle growing from an awkward young woman, unsure of her future, to an even more awkward young woman with odd coping mechanisms; Clairee supporting the local football team and her fellow ladies with class and sass; Shelby struggling with diabetes and becoming a mother; Truvy weathering the issues affecting her friends and her awkward employee with a smile and spritz of hairspray; M’Lynn juggling her difficult husband, to Ousiers struggles with her aging dog and general dislike of half the population of the parish.
The cast’s portrayal of this bond is palpable, believable, and organic. As the seasons change over these three years, the time lapse and scene changes are smooth, and the audiences attention remains rapt.
I cannot emphasize the expressiveness and dialogue delivery talents of this cast enough. Every “southern-ism” in the show is delivered with heartfelt mirth and soul. I laughed so hard that I snorted at one adage, “Walk on my lips”. As a denizen of the south, I truly believed I had heard every colorful turn of phrase, until this performance. The quips keep coming throughout, and the laughs truly do not stop until the final bow. The cast’s ability to let every appropriate emotion shine through during every moment makes the already well delivered dialogue truly shine. Every character shines in every appearance throughout the performance.
Although the show takes place over three years, the cast and crew cram all of this development, time, laughs and tears into a two hour performance, keeping the show moving at a healthy, quick pace. If I have a single criticism for this production, it is only that the final bow felt as if it were too early, as neither I nor my guest wanted to say goodbye to the characters just yet. At the beginning of the performance, Truvy reminds Anelle that “clients get only the best”. Was there a single quote to sum up this show, this would likely be it. From the effortless transition from drama to comedy, the tangible bond betwixt the characters, to the roller-coaster of emotions during the course of the tale, the audience truly only gets the best.
Steel Magnolias continues through August 8 at the historic Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby St. in Pelzer. For tickets, visit milltownplayers.org.