Do yourself a favor and GO SEE STEEL MAGNOLIAS at Footlighters Theater in Berwyn! FootlightersTheater.com
I saw it opening night (last night) and I am here to tell you that this is-hands down- the BEST ENSEMBLE CAST EVER on stage at the Main Line's oldest community theater.
Frankly, As a guy the idea of attending a show that was the inspiration for a "chick flick" movie wasn't that exciting to me. I am so glad I went! The six women in this cast are, individually and collectively,, amazing. While community theater is about so much more than just the acting... this show is all about professional-grade actors making the most out of a great script. (Believe me that is not a sentence I expected to write about a "chick flick" play when I made plans to see this production).
Steel Magnolias is the story of six Louisiana women in the early 1980's whose lives intersect at a small beauty salon. So you can perhaps see why a middle-aged guy was not so sure this would be a great evening's entertainment. It WAS a great evening at the theater. I am a firm believer in the notion that it all begins with good writing. This play has a laugh-a-minute wrapped around a very moving story of family and friends. You can google the synopsis, which I did. The synopsis doesn't do justice to the actual writing which is witty, poignant and often laugh-out-loud funny. The actors in this production hit the mark with every line every time.
Here's the thing: Community theater is often all about people who love performing coming together and putting on a show. That in and of itself is great. This production does that but takes it to a whole new (and higher) level that could rival any professional company. Yes, it really IS that good a cast.
Director Alicia Brisbois deserves a standing ovation for her casting and for crafting a production that is full of wonderful nuances. A great set (not always a 'given' in small community theater provides a visually interesting and colorful place for the actors to shine.
With Steel Magnolias Footlighters in Berwyn continues its climb to a consistently new level. The theater itself has been upgraded with new floors, lighting, sound and improvements to the audience experience.
Steel Magnolias runs weekends through February 8 with Sunday matinees on January 26 (tomorrow) and February 2 at 2pm. It's PG and ok for any age, but probably better understood by teens and up. Get a babysitter and have a date night or leave dad home with the kids and make it a girls night out (but guys will laugh and be touched by this production too).
Live theater is something you can't see on Netflix and this production is SO WORTH SEEING!
As a way to come to terms with the death of his sister due to complications from diabetes, playwright Robert Harling created what has become the ultimate story of the strength and resilience of women. Onstage now at Footlighters Theater in Berwyn, STEEL MAGNOLIAS is a reflection of the observations Harling made as a child of the women in his family. “I could see into the kitchen,” Harling said in a 2017 interview with Garden and Gun magazine, “and there were all these women and they were laughing and telling stories and dishing things out ... I thought, “This is very interesting. The women are getting it done.”
Set in the fictitious town of Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana (based on Harling’s hometown of Natchitoches, LA) the play is set entirely in Truvy’s Beauty Spot, the local hairdressing parlor where proprietor Truvy Jones (Allison Payne) lives by her golden rule,“There is no such thing as natural beauty.” Truvy’s is the place where the women of Chinquapin come to gather and spend their time gossiping (as Clairee says, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me.”), telling stories and discussing family issues. As New York Times critic Mel Gussow noted in his 1987 review of the original WPA Theater production, “There are apparently no secrets in Chinquapin.”
Throughout the play, audiences are treated to a glimpse of life in this small southern town and the wise-cracking women who seem to run things, even if the men don’t realize it. Unlike the 1989 movie (based on Harling’s screenplay), there are no men on stage. The only male presence comes in the form of the occasional broadcast of a radio announcer from local radio station KPPD. Husbands, sons, nephews and boyfriends serve only as the subject of quips and jokes as the ladies discuss the events of their daily lives. Early in Act I, for example, Chinquapin matriarch M’Lynn Eatenton (Janet Abbott) tells the ladies that her husband would never set foot in a hairdressing salon because “he probably thinks we all run around naked or something.” As reflected by popular television programs of the time like Designing Women and The Golden Girls, STEEL MAGNOLIAS provides a view into an all-female world where men are often viewed as important, but not always necessary.
The most endearing aspect of the play is the close bond and unwavering friendships between the six women, who collectively represent three generations at different points in their lives. The Footlighters’ production offers this as the first and most important aspect of their production. Throughout the play, I found myself picturing the six actresses working together and imagining the fun and laughter I am sure were a part of each and every rehearsal. That camaraderie was evident onstage as the women assumed these well-known characters and made them their own. Director Alicia Brisbois has created an environment where each actress understood the part they played in telling Harling’s story and the responsibility they had to present it with authenticity and grace.
Harling’s play does an outstanding job of pairing drama with humor in a way that lets the audience take the journey without feeling drained. In one of the play’s most memorable scenes, M’Lynn cries out in grief that she just wants to “hit something and hit it hard.” In a response worthy of Truvy’s favorite emotion,”laughter through tears”, wise-cracking Chinquapin first lady Clairee Belcher (Lauren Rosensky Flanagan) steps forward and responds “here, hit this,” presenting local curmudgeon Ouiser Boudreaux (Sheila Gaarder) as the proverbial punching bag. The Footlighters’ production handles moments like these with poise, allowing each actor to put their trust in one another and make such a difficult scene seems effortless.
While all the women bring their own unique talents to their iconic roles (it can’t be easy to play characters everyone has seen portrayed by Sally Field, Julia Roberts and Shirley Maclaine), the stand out for me was Footlighters’ newcomer Rebecca Whitten as young bride Shelby Eatenton Latcherie. Having directed and worked on the play before at theaters throughout the area, I was happy to see the innocence and joy Whitten brings to the role, creating a character much the way Harling describes his sister, Susan, “spicy, witty, smart, with a layer of compassion underneath”. Likewise, Melissa Lesperance’s portrayal of Truvy’s “semi-daughter”, Annelle Dupuy-Desoto, moved effortlessly from a bumbling, clumsy hairdresser in Act I to a profoundly reflective and peaceful woman who, through her religious strength, offers comfort to her elders in a time of profound tragedy.
Despite a few opening night bumps and issues with sound and dialogue, the ladies of Footlighters’ production succeed in presenting a world where you feel as if, despite the darkest of days, the sun will shine and everything will be alright. In her director’s notes, Alicia Brisbois says that Steel Magnolias is a story of “a beloved representation of the seasons in a woman’s life and how important the friends that surround her are.” Come to Footlighters in Berwyn and experience this world for yourself, but be sure to bring someone to share it with you who you love more than your luggage.
Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling is one of the most successful and well-loved plays of our time. The most unique thing about the show, in my opinion, is how the playwright, a male, was able to capture such a tender women’s point of view, mixed with truth, beauty, and heartbreak. A comedic-drama about friendship, Steel Magnolias tugs at the heart strings while making us laugh uncontrollably. It is much more than merely a feminist play turned beloved “chick flick.”
The show is set entirely within Truvy’s beauty parlor (nice set designed by Hugh Abbott), where the women gather to laugh, gossip, cry, and offer friendship and understanding to each other. Unlike the 1989 film adaptation, the stage play features no male characters. The men in the women’s lives are characters which are mentioned in conversation, and in passing. This allows the focus to be on the individual women’s strengths, weaknesses, differences, and unique personalities. The individual characters are written so differently, and equally as convincing. Despite their differences in opinions, appearances, and ages, the women share an unbreakable bond that is fascinating to watch unfold on stage. It is so well written, in fact, that is it my opinion that it is hard to “get it wrong” when putting up this specific piece of material. It’s like pizza, even bad pizza, is still pretty good pizza. Fortunately, Footlighters, the oldest community theatre on the Main Line, is serving up something rather tasty.
The cast includes town outcast turned Jesus freak, Annelle (played lovingly and comedically by Melissa Lesperance), the crotchety town grump Ouiser (Shelia Gardner), the frail but very charming Shelby (the winning Rebecca Whitten), matronly, blunt, and astute Clairee ( the hilarious Lauren Rozensky Flanagan), and Shelby’s mother, the eternal optimist M’Lynn (Janey Abbott) who all weekly gather at the glamorous Truvy’s (Allison Payne) beauty salon to gossip, swap recipes, and get their hair and nails done. Consisting of four scenes set over the course of three years, Steel Magnolias chronicles the events of these women’s lives: marriage, pregnancy, birth, death and everything in between.
The action is set 1985-88 in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, where all the ladies who are “anybody” come to have their hair done. Helped by her eager new assistant Annelle (who is not sure whether or not she is still married), the outspoken, wise-cracking Truvy dispenses shampoos and free advice to the town’s rich curmudgeon, Ouiser, (“I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years”); an eccentric millionaire, Miss Clairee, who has a raging sweet tooth; and the local social leader, M’Lynn, whose daughter, Shelby (the prettiest girl in town), is about to get married.
The ensemble, overall, came across as quite authentic, with very believable relationships and interactions. The comradery of these ladies was very apparent, and they all played off of each other rather well. The deep southern accents were for the most part consistent, although slightly dropped at various times by the actors throughout. As a community theatre that does not have access to formal training or a dialect coach, I felt they truly did a nice job.
Volume unfortunately was an issue for part of the performance. Some great “zingers” were lost in the shuffle, especially for Flanagan, who also seemed to be experiencing some slight, but unfortunate voice loss. It was refreshing to see the characters of Annelle and Shelby brought more to the foreground of this production, as they sometimes seem to be (intentionally, or unintentionally) greatly out shined by the shows more matriarchal characters. M’Lynn, often considered the shows protagonist, held a calm and confident demeanor, throughout the production. While at times it seemed, the actor was holding back early on in the play, it made her Scene 4 monologue all the more gut wrenching when she finally did open the flood gates and let it pour out.
A dynamic, useful and colorful set, against a strong, unapologetic female ensemble, and overall decent production value made for an entertaining evening at Footlighters in Berwyn. You will laugh and cry with this beautiful tribute to friendship, community, and the power of the human spirit. Catch Steel Magnolias for two more weekends, running until February 8th. Tickets on sale at https://footlighterstheater.com/.
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