You may be familiar with Herbert Ross’s star-studded 1989 film, “Steel Magnolias,” and if you aren’t, you should be. What you may not realize is that the film was based on a play written two years earlier by Robert Harling. Although the film takes its own liberties with extra characters and scenes, the play is the original source of the soul that makes this story so damn heartfelt. Now, Reno Little Theater has ambitiously brought the production to their own stage.
Harling’s story takes place entirely in a cozy beauty salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana owned by Truvy (Jamie Lynn Woodham). The set is faultlessly detailed down to every comb and barrette soaking in blue sanitizing solution. As Truvy’s friends arrive, we discover there has never been a tighter group of women. Annelle (Katie Hughes) is the waify new hire; Clairee (Moira Bengochea), is as sarcastic as she is refined; Ouiser (Evonne Kezios) is hot-tempered and takes nobody’s BS. They gather to help M’Lynn (Sandra Brunell Neace) and her daughter, Shelby (Greer Kukuk), prepare for Shelby’s wedding.
Each scene sees the women musing over a major event in M’Lynn and Shelby’s lives over the course of a year. The passage of time is suggested by indicators like Christmas decorations or tomatoes Ouiser brings in to share. The ladies’ hilarious, quick-witted banter carries the story along, keeping the audience tickled pink (Shelby’s favorite color) along the way. In fact, most –
if not all – of the infamous one-liners from the film are there to provide laughs throughout.
Yet beneath the humor is a vein of despair. We see the pain M’Lynn harbors quietly as she watches her daughter become her own person and make her own decisions. We understand the naïve hope Shelby has for her future but can’t help worrying with her mother. A tragic blow in the second act is punctuated by a gut-wrenching monologue delivered by Neace, sure to bring tears to your eyes. Humor and heartache intersect as these women endure poignant life lessons together.
There is an ironic beauty in how “Steel Magnolias” teases you with its comedic timing, then stretches you to the limits of sadness, only to turn your weeping back into fits of laughter in a split second. Each actress owns her character with gusto, all fresh and welcome departures from their more familiar big screen counterparts. The incredible cast of women has mastered the balance between comedy and tragedy that is at the core of Harlin’s story. Director Rachel Lopez nailed it with this one. It is a theater classic not to miss!
If you go:
What: “Steel Magnolias”
Where: Reno Little Theater
147 E. Pueblo St.
Reno, NV 89502
When: Jan. 19 – Feb. 11
By Owen Bryant