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Review: 'Steel Magnolias' is warm-hearted and funny ... but safe

Does the world really need another revival of Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias" after the hundreds of productions around the country in the last 20 years, plus a hit movie?

The production that opened Friday night at Camelot Theatre in Talent, directed by Bob Herried, is a nice enough treatment of the familiar comic drama. The magnolias of the title are Southern women who gather in Truvy's Beauty Salon in Chinquapin, La., on Saturday mornings, to chat, gossip, swap wisecracks and toss off one-liners with the aplomb of world-class wits.

The play covers two years in four scenes spread over two acts. In this time the mags share love and loss, hope and heartache. Truvy's salon — and thus the play itself — is a Y chromosome-free zone. The only men in the play's world exist off-stage, where, with the exception of one who rekindles an old flame and another who comes out as gay, they spend their time mindlessly shooting off guns or vegging out in front of the TV set.

Nonetheless, men in Friday's audience — and they were there in normal numbers — probably laughed louder than the women.

The first scene is a lot of comic banter that establishes the characters and their relationships.

Truvy (Wendy Spurgeon, who will alternate with Renee Hewitt in the Dolly Parton role) has a good heart and good Southern hair. She reminds the others she's a beautician, not a magician, but she's the glue that makes it all work.

Shelby (Katie Warner-Falk) is a young woman with diabetes who has been advised that having a baby would be dangerous to her health.

This is a matter of deep concern to her mother, M'Lynn (Dianna Warner). Add to the mix Truvy's new employee and avid born-again Christian Annelle (Jazzmin Parker), rich radio-station owner Clairee (Judith Rosen) and mean old lady Ouiser (Priscilla Quinby), and imagine the possibilities.

Harling gives these women such great one-liners that it sometimes feels like watching Groucho Marx times six, but without the edge. The women are cliches to an extent, but they are drawn lovingly and have also been endowed with the ability to surprise us. Nearly all the jokes got big laughs, although a few were flubbed, and there were more than the usual number of first-night hiccups.

Once the actual narrative gets moving the story is simplicity itself. Shelby gets married (to the absent Jackson, a feckless young lawyer who lives to hunt) and decides to have a baby even though the pregnancy is medically dangerous. What's a li'l gal to do? Inevitably, M'Lynn has to make a decision.

The play shifts gears between the first act, which is comic, and the second, which is somewhat tragic, and it's to Harling's credit that the change, which feels like going from a sit-com to one of those disease-of-the-week TV movies, is not overly jarring. This is mainly because the characters the characters are drawn sharply and are just so darn, well, likable. The acting is winning across the board — this is probably as close as it gets to an actor-proof play — with Quinby almost stealing it as the hard-hearted curmudgeon with a heart of gold.

Truvy's beauty parlor, a former carport, is a sensational set, yet another in a series of winners gracing Camelot's stage from Don Zastoupil.

"Steel Magnolias" is the on-stage equivalent of a chick flick. While anybody can appreciate the banter, and the heart, those of the guy persuasion might find themselves shifting in their seats by the second act.

A more serious issue with the play is that it is as safe as theater can be. It's something you go to see to be told something you already know about characters you feel you know. Camelot has been on a roll in past year, mounting sharp productions one after the other. This one sparks laughs, and maybe a tear, without asking much of its audience.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Cast members, from left, Kaitie Warner-Falk, Priscilla Quinby and Dianna Warner star in “Steel Magnolias,” currently playing at the Camelot Theatre in Talent.