Steel Magnolias: Better when it’s breathing

Boone Dog Productions is presenting Steel Magnolias at The Nest.

This is when it hits. (Lalainia Lindbjerg, Ranae Miller, Gillian Barber, and Sheryl Anne Wheaton photographed by Damon Calderwood)

I ran into a pal at intermission who floated a genius idea: cast Steel Magnolias with drag queens. Playwright Robert Harling is gay after all and the characters in Steel Magnolias feel very much like women as imagined by a gay man.

In the play, we’re in small-town Louisiana in 1987 in a home beauty parlour owned by Truvy. A tight-knit group of women gather as Truvy prepares Shelby and her mom M’Lynn for Shelby’s wedding later that day. These gals are all dishy, quippy, united in their subversive opposition to the patriarchy, and, as Truvy says, their favourite emotion is “laughter through tears.”

They’re also self-parodying and larger than life. Ouiser, the oldest, says she’s been angry for the last 40 years and Clairee, the widow of the former mayor, is a self-possessed grand dame. So, yeah, drag queens could make sense.

Still, leaning into that performativity too heavily as director Shel Piercy and his cast do here is a mistake because Harling also has a more serious story to tell. Harling’s sister Susan died in 1985 from complications of Type 1 diabetes. In Steel Magnolias, Shelby, the bride-to-be, has the same condition. And she wants to get pregnant, even though doing so would risk her life.

You don’t have to underline the jokes in Steel Magnolias. They’re there and their success is a given. So, when Ouiser delivers the line about having been pissed for four decades, you don’t have to punch it the way actor Chy does here. (Chy’s no more guilty of overemphasis than anybody else; I’m just using this moment as an example.)

If you play it too heavily for laughs, Steel Magnolias becomes repetitive; you lose the variations in tempo and texture that the script could provide. And you lose a lot of the bottom end, the reality base that can make Steel Magnolias so moving. That’s what happens in Act 1 of this mounting.

Ranae Miller overacts as Annelle, a new hairdresser in Truvy’s salon. And Lalainia Lindbjerg illustrates another interesting problem: playing M’Lynn, she works herself up in her own emotional bubble, rather than allowing M’Lynn to listen and respond to the characters around her.

Fortunately, there are also a couple of excellent listeners onstage. When you’re watching Gillian Barber (Clairee) and Sheryl Anne Wheaton (Truvy), you can relax because they’re relaxed. They’re not showing us anything or working themselves up; they’re simply responding in character to what’s happening around them.

And, on opening night, Piercy’s production of Steel Magnolias did a much better job of finding itself in the more somber second act, which deals (predictably) with death and its aftermath. All of the actors settle down and Lindbjerg comes into her own: she delivers a rage-fueled monologue that made me weep.

Acts 1 and 2 of Steel Magnolias aren’t different plays. This production will be better when and if its Act 1 can absorb more of the naturalness and spaciousness of its Act 2. Drag queens or not, these girls need to let their hair down a little.

STEEL MAGNOLIAS By Robert Harling. Directed by Shel Piercy. Presented by Boone Dog Productions. At The Nest on Friday, February 14. Continues until March 8. Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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