Beauty salons, where women can let their hair down away from the opposite sex, make ideal settings for stories.
Such is the case in “Steel Magnolias,” playing at the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria. The dramedy, directed by Kelli Howard, features a cast of excellent actresses playing vivid characters.
Playwright Robert Harling based the characters in the play on his late sister and other people in their northern Louisiana hometown. He initially wrote it as a way to deal with his grief over her death.
“Steel Magnolias” opened off-Broadway in 1987. Harling didn’t intend it as a comedy, but due to his ear for dialogue and talent for capturing the way people naturally talk and behave, audiences laughed.
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In 1989, the story was fleshed out with more comedic elements and made into a movie starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field and Dolly Parton. It was produced on Broadway in 2005.
“Steel Magnolias” takes place in Truvy’s hair salon, where her longtime friends keep standing weekly appointments.
This Saturday, however, is a far cry from normal, as everyone wants to look extra-special for the social event of the year. On Sunday, town beauty Shelby (Christina Fountain) is getting married.
Truvy (Sharee Hallman) breaks in a new assistant, Annelle (Cika P. Cook), to tend to the others as she concentrates on the bride.
M’Lynn (Janine Elich), the mother of the bride, locks horns with her daughter about hair styles, as widow Clairee (Janice Peters) patiently waits her turn.
Pistol shots sound close by as the never-seen father of the bride, Drum, shoos birds from a magnolia tree with his gun.
Then town curmudgeon Ouiser (Beth Marshall) storms in, furious that the noise has caused her dog to lose his hair. She’s taking him to the vet and canceling her hair-styling appointment.
As the women yak and laugh, Shelby suddenly slumps over. Unfazed, M’Lynn and Truvy get her to sip some orange juice. It’s clear she’s had a diabetic attack.
Six months later, when the newlywed woman, who has kept her job as a maternity nurse, tells her mother she’s pregnant, M’Lynn doesn’t take the news well. She fears the pregnancy will endanger Shelby’s life.
All the actors in “Steel Magnolias” sound convincingly Southern, but their voices are at times hard to detect during serious and intimate conversations. However, the laughs are plentiful from the get-go.
Marshall, as the twice-divorced Ouiser, steals the show with her powerful comedic talents.
Cook, a natural comic, is an absolute kick as the nervous Annelle, nearly bouncing as she totters around on high heels, her face twitching.
As Truvy, Hallman keeps the wisecracks flowing like the stream from the can of hair spray she wields.
Elich’s M’Lynn seldom smiles but delivers an understated dry humor, keeping her emotions in check as befitting the character’s work as a psychotherapist.
Fountain plays Shelby with a good-natured sweetness, only acting crabby when coming out of insulin shock. She, too, gets laughs; her timing is excellent.
Peters, who has a quieter role as Clairee, is an experienced actor yet uncharacteristically often fails to project her voice.
This production of “Steel Magnolias” is not without its problems, either.
A malfunctioning sound system was disconcerting during an opening weekend performance.
Except for Truvy, no one had hair styles appropriate to the time and the place — ironic considering the setting — and their outfits looked like they came from the casts’ own wardrobes.
Two plastic patio chairs that dominated center stage were five years ahead of the setting.
Nevertheless, experiencing this production could make a lasting impression — just as Shelby makes a lasting impression on those in her life.
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through Sept. 20
Pewter Plough Playhouse, 850 Main St., Cambria
$17 to $22
927-3877 or www.pewterploughplayhouse.org