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Playwright and screenwriter Robert Harling’s 1987 Off-Broadway comedy/drama Steel Magnolias is the crowd-pleasing season-opener for The Towne Players’ ninth season. Performed with gusto on the vastly expanded stage of the newly renovated Garner Historic Auditorium, with its widely spaced rows of comfortable padded theater-style seats, this perennially popular tearjerker also benefits from one of the award-winning Garner community theater’s most realistic sets to date, cleverly created by artistic director Beth Honeycutt and her husband, technical director Scott Honeycutt. The Honeycutts have convincingly recreated the truly tacky décor and gossipy atmosphere of Truvy’s Beauty Salon in tiny Chinquapin, Louisiana.
During Saturday night’s performance, the six members of the all-female cast, under the sure-handed direction of Beth Honeycutt, started slow, but finished strong as they brought Harling’s half-dozen quirky characters fully to life, sometimes with a mite more enthusiasm than polish.
From the opening curtain, Kelly Stansell is a rock as M’Lynn Eatenton, the long-suffering mother of headstrong bride-turned-young mother Shelby Eatenton Latcherie (Maggie Cochran). Shelby is hopelessly spoiled and severely diabetic; and she takes foolish risks—like getting pregnant against her doctor’s orders and her fearful mother’s wishes — that not only could prove fatal to her fragile body, but also could break the hearts of her deeply concerned parents and husband and toddler.
Maggie Cochran is convincing as the impulsive and irresponsible but goodhearted Shelby; Meg Dietrich is very funny as wisecracking beauty-shop owner/operator Truvy Jones; and Frances Stanley and Sharon Pearce are hilarious as big-talking Clairee Belcher, radio station owner and widow of the former mayor of Chinquapin, and the seemingly misanthropic Ouiser Boudreaux, two of Truvy’s best customers whose constant, mostly good-natured bickering provides much of the show’s humor. And Tiffany Russell is amusing as sweet, sensitive, and terminally religious Annelle Dupuy Desoto, the salon’s resident religious fanatic and an all-around weirdo.
On the surface, Steel Magnolias is an uproarious hen-fest that allows the audiences to eavesdrop on a juicy slice of small-town gossip; but there are dark forces at work beneath the surface,. The show’s soap-opera-ish subplot, a maudlin melodrama that involves Shelby’s reaping the whirlwind from her reckless behavior, adds a piercing note of poignancy that balances the carefree comedy generated by the good-natured bickering of, and barrage of insults exchanged by, these six unforgettable characters from Chinquapin. Last Saturday night, the Towne Players audience left the miraculously transformed Garner Historic Auditorium laughing through its tears.
The Towne Players present Steel Magnolias Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 18-20, at 8 p.m. at Garner Historic Auditorium, 742 W. Garner Rd., Garner, North Carolina. $10 ($8 students and seniors). 919/779-6144. The Towne Players: http://www.towneplayers.org/. Garner Historic Auditorium: http://www.ci.garner.nc.us/historicaud.htm [inactive 5/07]. Internet Movie Database (1989 Film): http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0098384/.