Dallas — Since we crawled into a cave and put some grass down for comfort, women have been the stable, civilizing center of the species. Draw some pictures on the bare walls, cook whatever the men drug in. I mean, we can’t eat it raw. Bear the future generations with pain, love and on peril of death in childbirth. Oh, and comb that tangled hair back and give us a smile.
One reason Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias keeps bringing audiences to laughter and tears is that it’s grounded in the real experience of women immemorial. Harling’s off-Broadway hit of 1987, and his popular 1989 film starring Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts and other Hollywood luminaries, have secured his place in the hearts of good old gals and beauty shop operators forever.
Associate Artistic director Joel Ferrell directs Dallas Theater Center’s 60th season opener with the visual fun of Dahlia Al-Habieli’s reassuringly familiar and happily cluttered set of a home beauty parlor in a small Louisiana town in the mid-1980s, but also brings a fresh, gettin’-it-done impetus to the bustling shop, plus a diverse cast of first-rate actors lined up for a “full day of beauty” and free group therapy.
During his 10-year tenure at the Dallas Theater Center, Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty has ensured that the works on DTC’s stages are cast to maximize racial, gender and age diversity. For white audiences, color-blind and color-conscious casting have sometimes caused a moment of confusion, but no longer—which is why the commitment to equity on- and off-stage is important. While it’s clear that racism in this country is far from over, here the stage view gives us hope and these beautiful Steel Maggies represent the solidarity of women of all colors joining together in this moment. It’s important to note that the major designers for this production are women; a woman director would have been the perfect complement.
Ferrell leaves behind the languorous delivery and southern drawl of many productions, and keeps his focus on the distinct personalities of the six women who come to get their hair washed and set, catch up on the current gossip and confess their joys, worries and death-defying acts of keeping it together in a middle-class world that looks a lot comfier from the outside than in the actual living. Quite a feat. The delight is in sharing the barbed sarcasms, sly confessions, and sorrows heated to the breakdown-laughing point. The heat and the hairspray radiate way past the front row, and right away you’re hoping against what you already know that it’ll end differently this time. The production is that good.
DTC Brierley Resident Acting Company member Liz Mikel, in all her Earth Mother glory, is Truvy Jones, proud owner of her shop and her select clientele. Sweeping up trimmed curls or holding a stricken customer to her bosom, Mikel exudes stability and good humor.
Ana Hagedorn, a new company member, is Truvy’s new, eager young assistant Annelle, a teenage bride recently deserted and comically frantic to make good on the shampoo circuit. Chattering and ashamed of her uncertain marital status, Hagedorn’s Annelle is funniest when she converts to fundamentalist Christianity and starts praying for the clearly lost souls who patronize Truvy’s shop.
Christie Vela, a stunning actress with the commanding presence of an opera diva, is M’Lynn, a stalwart woman with the powerful purpose of protecting her endearing, diabetic daughter Shelby, played by DTC company member and elegant ingénue Tiana Kaye Blair. Over the three years that sweep by in the play’s two acts, these two vibrant actors make us feel the relationship between mother and daughter intensify, in both their stubborn differences and the deep closeness of flesh-and-blood love.
Nance Williamson, a former DTC Company member who appeared in more than 30 productions during Adrian Hall’s tenure, returns as the still-glamourous Clairee, the football-loving widow of the town’s late mayor, still up for a party and the latest lowdown on the current mayor’s wife who “we all hate.” These women are no saints. We hear the former playground witch in Williamson’s quick and funny put-downs.
DTC company member Sally Nystuen Vahle is Ouiser (pronounced “weezer”), the town’s ill-tempered and wealthy spinster, a reliable cynic who can be counted on to quash any grand scheme of neighborliness, community festivities or blanket goodwill. Vahle, who always enters pissed off or smirking, brings a comic, don’t-give-a-damn energy to the folksy heat of the beauty shop. Who can resist a woman whose idea of Christmas decorations is a Keep Off the Grass sign?
Outfitted in Karen Perry’s period-nostalgic costumes in a hundred shades of pink, mauve and magenta, these tough women get their hair done to suit every occasion, from a wedding to a kidney transplant, thanks to Valerie Gladstone’s gorgeous wigs.
They tease and cry, and get each other through the bad times, when the men in their lives, who we hear about under the dryer or learn through shouted phone conversations, are mostly crazy, weak or vanished in the night. The best of them are mentioned as accessories to the event, present at the scene but hardly “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” in Dylan Thomas’ words about what drives his heart.
What drives this production of Steel Magnolias is the tempered iron will of women who have been there, done that and survived. When Vela’s grieving, drained M’Lynn tells her longtime friends, “You have no idea how wonderful you are,” Truvy doesn’t miss a beat. “Of course, we do,” Mikel’s Truvy says.
That’s just a matter of fact.
Everyone needs a good salon day.