Steel Magnolias

Character development, relationships important to show’s success

How perfectly appropriate that the all-female Stephens College would choose to present a play with an entirely female cast.

Certainly, you’ve seen “Steel Magnolias” as a movie, and perhaps you even remember how the story ends, but don’t let that stop you from taking in the stage production this week at the Okoboji Summer Theatre.

Four student actors and two guest artists put their hearts into the two-hour production, weaving humor and sarcasm into this southern story of rivalry, resentment, strength, love and letting go.

Student actors Cheyenne Hensley and Regina Solidum open the story as salon owner Truvy Jones and young stylist Annelle Dupuy, who is “auditioning” for a job.

Don’t be mistaken that this is a chain salon in a shopping mall. No, the time is the middle of the ’80s and the setting is the heart of Louisiana. The salon is an extension of Truvy’s home and nothing happens quickly here. Conversations are more about people and families than they are about cut and color.

Guest actors Kelli Harrington and Lauren Miller play Clairee and Ousier. The two are as opposite as can be — from the way they dress to the way they talk to their interest in sports versus theatre.

These rivals love to banter and bicker, but in the end discover they have more in common than they thought. These two ladies turn in fantastic performances and are perfectly cast for the roles. Their maturity on the stage helps the younger actors elevate their performances.

Rounding out the cast as the mother/daughter duo M’Lynn and Shelby are Colleen O’Brien and Denise Angieri. The two develop their relationship as the story progresses. Angieri somehow feels more mature by the second act, and O’Brien finally lets her guard down for the closing scene and exposes real emotion over the ordeal their family has endured.

The production team is also led by several females with Jeannie Marlin Woods serving as director. Marlin Woods clearly understands the mission of the story and allows the character development to happen over the course of both acts.

Not only do you feel you’ve learned something about each of these characters, you find yourself hurting right alongside them.

Jess Lorenz serves as stage manager, with plenty of details to track, Savannah Bell is lighting designer and Mattison Williams handles costumes. What fun it is to see the period-perfect clothing choices, from pleated-front walking shorts to overly decorated Christmas sweaters. The 1980s certainly gave the theatre plenty to exploit in the clothing arena.

Ken George, scenic designer, turns in another exquisite set. This is exactly what you would think of for an in-home salon snatched out of the 1980s. Not only do the walls feature floor-to-ceiling paneling, there is a teal-blue hooded drying chair, a washing sink, a manicure station and a swivel styling chair.

Shelves are laden with hair products, and pictures of period-appropriate styles are taped to the mirrors and walls around the work space. Curlers, mirrors, combs, clips and pins complete the decor. Every ladies’ magazine title you can think of, including “Readers Digest,” is present somewhere. A “Yes, We’re Open/Sorry We’re Closed” sign hangs in the front window.

The time and place are further enhanced with Whitney Houston music playing on the radio in the background, Ousier explaining about “getting her colors done,” M’Lynn making a casual reference to exercising with Jane Fonda, and the salon phone is used for personal calls since no one yet carries a cellphone.

The ladies talk about husbands, kids and neighbors. They gossip a bit and complain a little bit more. They share frustrations and disagree about religion and sports. Even though none of the men in their lives ever appear on stage, you feel you know these guys simply from hearing about them. By the final scene of the play the audience has become connected with these ladies and the special bond they share.

O’Brien’s performance as she grieves is real and painful. The support of the others is admirable and inspirational.

“Steel Magnolias” is a touching and heartbreaking story, perfectly timed in the season’s lineup.