‘Steel Magnolias’: The hearts of the south

By Janelle Faignant
THE ARTS

For these ladies, beauty is more than skin deep. In a town where you don’t leave the house without full hair and make-up, and Lycra under your clothes, Truvy’s Beauty Salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana is the heart of a community where “there is no such thing as natural beauty.”

“Steel Magnolias,” Robert Harling’s 1987 comedy–drama, centers on the bond between a group of southern women who are “delicate as magnolias but tough as steel.” It was adapted into the 1989 feature film of the same name, with a cast of Oscar winners including Julia Roberts, Sally Field and Shirley MacLaine.

Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre, Rutland’s community theater, will present “Steel Magnolias” in the Brick Box at the Paramount Theatre, opening at 7:30 p.m. tonight and running through May 6.

Full of the kind of contradictions implied in the title, these women tell a sympathetic story. Shelby, whose adult life is just beginning, is on the wrong side of health. Wealthy Ouiser is most unhappy (or as she puts it, “I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years”). Clairee, the lovable confidant, is widowed. Sweet innocent Annelle “may or may not” have a dark past. Stable M’Lynn, a town counselor, is about to endure a heartbreaking tragedy. And a down-on-his-luck husband and troubled son worry Truvy, the tie that holds them all together with her warm and open charm.

The passing of time is marked by holidays, beginning and ending with Easter, and early this past Easter morning, director Gary Meitrott disclosed a surprising revelation.

“I never saw the movie,” he said. “And I won’t see it until after we do the show.”

But Meitrott didn’t need to see it to know that this small salon is more than a place to have your roots touched up. It’s a haven of healing and homespun therapy for these women.

When Truvy says that her husband turned the carport into the salon so that she could support him, “It ends up supporting her,” Meitrott said.

“I told Jen Sanford (who plays Truvy) this is for you also, to nurture yourself, to the extent that frankly you don’t get in your marriage,” he said.

Cranky Ouiser, who “has more money than God,” played by Eileen Koch of Castleton, has some of the show’s best lines. Koch spends some time alone to get into character before taking the stage, “because I do feel Ouiser is just a little different than the others.”

But Ouiser does have a cynical charm of her own. For every ray of sunlight Truvy attempts to beam, Ouiser tempers it with a rain cloud of reality check.

“The older I get, the more I do (relate to her),” Koch said with a laugh. “You know how you hear the same things for so many years that you’re like, ‘yeah, yeah.’”

Creating the closeness among these friends is part of the challenge for the actors who play them, and some in the cast knew each other and some didn’t. The actresses playing Annelle and Oiuser both went to Castleton University; the director had worked with one of the actresses before. But ultimately none of that mattered.

“We’ve just kind of jived,” Koch said. “And, of course, that grows each time you rehearse. The setting probably helps it along,” she said referring to the small and intimate space of the Brick Box.

Funny one-liners and charming characters who haven’t lost touch with what’s real despite their deep-fried hair dye give this story its pulse.

“Up front, it was these interesting individuals who got together to get their hair done,” Meitrott said, “but this little country salon is the source for these people to really nurture each other. It isn’t just about getting hair done.”

Vermont Actors Repertory Theatre

Vermont Actors Repertory Theatre presents “Steel Magnolias,” by Robert Harling, in the Brick Box at the Paramount Theatre, 30 Center St., Rutland. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays April 27-29 and May 4-6, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 30. Tickets are $20; call 802-775-0903, or go online to www.paramountvt.org. For information, visit www.actorsrepvt.org.

 

Janelle Faignant

Janelle Faignant is a freelance writer living in Rutland.

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