February 28, 2010 in City

Give ‘Magnolias’ a pinch more steel

By The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Civic Theatre delivers a standard-issue version of “Steel Magnolias,” and that’s a good thing.

As most people already know, this Robert Harling play is a funny, affecting, Southern female-bonding play, with a nice ratio of comedy (75 percent) and pathos (25 percent). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll feel better for it at the end.

The six women in the cast, led by director George Green, effectively take us through the show’s main dramatic pivot (the illness of young, vivacious Shelby) and the small-town hair-dryer camaraderie. They all show considerable skill at trading fast-paced banter in broad Southern accents – in some cases, “extraaiimly” broad Southern accents.

However, this version never seemed quite as powerful to me as the Civic’s exceptional 2000 version. One of the problems: Plenty of magnolia was in evidence, but not enough steel.

Harling’s point in this play is that these women are as tough and resilient as tempered metal beneath that hairspray. With notable exceptions, these characters seemed just a bit lightweight – more like comedy characters than real women.

One problem was that the women often delivered their lines as comedy lines instead of as real dialogue. In many cases, they started laughing at their own lines while they were delivering them.

If you’re laughing at your own jokes, it creates two fairly serious problems: You damage the illusion that you are watching real people instead of comedy actors, and you strip the “dry” right out of the “wit.” I suspect this was a directorial choice, to punch up the laughs, but it didn’t work for me, especially with this script.

The standouts in the cast took a tougher, more deadpan line. Wendy Carroll as Clairee, the matron of the group, had a wonderful, no-nonsense dry delivery that reminded me of Olympia Dukakis in the film. And once again, as in 2000, Kathie Doyle-Lipe was a feisty, funny, tightly wound ball of rage as Ouiser, the eccentric rich neighbor.

M’Lynn, played by Melody Deatherage, is the toughest of the bunch – and she has to be, because it is M’Lynn who has to shoulder the biggest burden at play’s end. Deatherage played M’Lynn as a little too bossy, a little too domineering, but with a welcome intensity.

Molly Parish as Truvy, Bethany Hart as Shelby and Kelsey Strom as Annelle all had their fine moments of comedy, but it was this trio that could add a bit of steel to their performances.

Some of the problem, frankly, lies in the play itself, which is beginning to show its age with its 1980s flavor. Have you seen those ads for that upcoming movie “Hot Tub Time Machine,” in which people are transported to 1986? This feels a bit like that.

Yet the important themes of “Steel Magnolia” are timeless. With good, honest friends, you can endure even the hardest times. We can always use that reminder.

“Steel Magnolias” continues through March 21. Call (509) 325-2507 for tickets.

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