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The beauty of ‘Magnolias’

Civic Theatre stages show that promises huge laughs, incredible sorrow

By now, most people have had their own appointment at Truvy’s Beauty Spot.

America flocked to the 1989 film of “Steel Magnolias” with Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis and Daryl Hannah.

America laughed. America cried.

As the Spokane Civic Theatre prepares to open its version tonight, we should remember that the roots of “Steel Magnolias” are on stage.

It began in 1987 as an off-Broadway smash. Since then, it has become a popular staple at regional and community theaters. The Civic Theatre staged its first memorable version in 2000.

Why is this show so enduring? Partly because Robert Harling’s script provides a crowd-pleasing balance between Southern-grits humor and good old-fashioned pathos, and partly because there are so many exceptionally juicy roles for women.

The Civic and director George Green have put together a cast with some of the better-known names in local theater. Kathie Doyle-Lipe plays Ouiser (the Shirley MacLaine role), Melody Deatherage plays M’Lynn (the Sally Field role) and Bethany Hart plays Shelby (the Julia Roberts role).

Kelsey Strom plays Annelle, Molly Parish plays Truvy and Wendy Carroll plays Clairee.

The play takes place entirely at Truvy’s in small-town Louisiana. We learn about the romances, the marriages, the joys and the tragedies of these women’s lives.

Harling wrote the play as a way of coping with the death of his sister, who, like one of the main characters in “Steel Magnolias,” suffered from diabetes-related complications.

Yet if this play is therapy, it is a humor therapy. Most of the script is filled with the kind of repartee that you might hear from underneath the hairdryers.

The original 1987 New York Times review, by Mel Gussow, praised it as being “gently amusing” and filled with a “tender note of loss.”

Times critic Ben Brantley wasn’t nearly as generous to the 2005 Broadway revival featuring Delta Burke, Christina Ebersole, Frances Sternhagen and Marsha Mason.

He said it was a “nonstop succession of quips,” which seems to have been “freeze-dried” from 1987.

Yet Brantley had to admit that, “by the end of the second act … the teary sniffles were as audible as the chuckles had been before.”

One of the characters says that her favorite emotion is “laughter through tears.”

That’s exactly what the Civic’s new production will be striving for.