The challenge in presenting Robert Harling's comic drama "Steel Magnolias" is to engage the audience in a play in which almost nothing happens. The action consists entirely of women hanging out in a Deep South beauty shop, talking.
And Lord amercy what talk! Each of these women has evidently graduated from the Dixie campus of the College of Colorful Colloquialisms. Characters are "busier than a one-armed paper hanger." They toss off quips like, "It's my mind tryin' to catch up with my body." They advise that, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of manure."
In the unlikely event that you've somehow never seen the play, or the 1989 film with Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts, or the 2012 television remake with Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad and Alfre Woodard, here's another chance. A respectful revival opened Friday night at the Randall Theatre in downtown Medford, directed by Neale Donald Walsch of "Conversations With God" fame.
The center of the action, or rather the talk, is the beauty parlor operated by good-hearted Truvy (Annie Sims) in the fictional town of Chinquapin in northwest Louisiana.
As we join the good ol' gals on Nic Walsch's slightly tacky set (beauty shop chairs, a shampoo sink, pinned-up photos of movie stars with great hair), Truvy is hiring shy, withdrawn Annelle (Katie Fisher), a recent beauty-school graduate fleeing an abusive marriage, to work doing hair.
It is the morning of Shelby's (Chloe Rosenthal) wedding to a young lawyer with a promising future. Shelby's mama, M'Lynn (Judith Rosen), who isn't happy unless she's worrying about Shelby, has come to have her hair done too.
As has grouchy old Ouiser Boudreaux (Brandy Carson), who declares that she's not crazy ("I've just been in a bad mood for 40 years"). And her foil, cheery Clairee Belcher (the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Dee Maaske).
As Clairee hurls zingers at Ouiser and Shelby argues with M'Lynn, who doesn't want her to have a baby because of her health (she has Type 1 diabetes), Shelby falls into hypoglycemic shock. With a bit of orange juice and the mother-henning of the other women, she recovers.
The incident serves to show the bonds among these women and to prefigure the play's climactic event, which happens, like many a Shakespeare battle, off-stage.
To play these characters as cornballs out of Hazzard County would kill whatever chance this rather slight play has of making its points. The key is to play the characters straight, and that's the approach Walsch and company have taken.
Usually, it works. Sims' Truvy constantly exudes a den-mother good-heartedness even though she's as busy as a stump-tailed cow in fly time. Rosen creates an oddly brittle M'Lynn but melts in a key emotional scene. Old pros Maaske and Carson aren't at the play's center, which focuses on Shelby and M'Lynn, but they add color playing off each other like the sweet and sour in fast food Chinese.
Fisher nearly steals it as quirky Annelle (an interesting role) moving through a mysterious arc from shy outsider to member of this close-knit group. Rosenthal is an effective and attractive Shelby (the Julia Roberts role), earning our attention when she's on.
Some of the acting was shaky at moments, whether from the direction or just opening-night jitters. But the major trouble with "Steel Magnolias" is that in a play in which nothing is happening, the focus naturally turns to the development of the characters.
But when we turn there what do we find? Flat characters trading quips. One likes the color pink, one likes football, one is a grouch while another is sunny, and so on.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, exactly. An advantage of flat characters is that they are easy to "get." We quickly get that Ouiser will grouch, Clairee will zing, and so on. Flat characters are easy to remember, as well. They fit best in comedy, and for most of its two-and-a-half hours "Steel Magnolias" is primarily comic.
Of course, even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then, and when "Steel Magnolias" eventually delivers its pathos in a giant scoop, more than a few eyes go moist. Tellingly, it's a scene in which M'Lynn lets it all hang out. Part of the scene's power stems from our shock at seeing a flat character in a tragic mode.
The takeaway affect of the play for those who are moved by it will be something like Shelby's description of her favorite emotion, which is "laughter through tears." This isn't a deep play. But it says that when life breaks your heart, it's good to have friends, and that's a message people will continue to want to hear.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.