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Steely women in private spaces

“Steel Magnolias” is a window into women’s world of lifelong, small-town friendship, gossip and glamour.

Robert Harling’s autobiographical play about his sister’s life and death, directed by Galloway Stevens, opened last week at Oregon Cabaret Theatre.

The story has been called a Southern staple, evocative of the heat, temperament, language and culture of Southern women. The play’s women are indeed steel magnolias, women who value appearance and cultivate beauty and who have an inner core of strength and resilience. For those who’ve lived in the South, “Steel Magnolias” rings true.

“Steel Magnolias” reached Golden Globe fame in 1989 with a film starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts. The actresses captured women’s hearts, and OCT’s production does the same.

Relationships are at the core of the production and are played out in Truvy’s style shop amid hair dryers, hair spray and nail polish, in front of mirrors that reveal one’s soul. The women bicker, banter, laugh and love, sharing private moments, private thoughts in this protected women-only space where they can express their hopes and fears, and the shortcomings of the men they love.

There’s a narrative arc to each of the characters, and over the course of the four scenes and three years of the play, each woman grows and changes, transforming and gaining some sense of satisfaction. Beautifully worked pencil drawings are projected onto the upper reaches of the stage and morph into colorized icons, shapes and images. Mallory Pruchas’ art and Ollie Quant’s projections help tell the tale and signal temporal progression.

M’Lynn, played by Julie Cardia, almost is forbidding and formal through most of the play, while her daughter Shelby, played by Katy Wilson in her debut Oregon Cabaret performance, is gracious, ethereal and ephemeral. Cardia’s capacity to portray naked grief, a mother’s terrible loss, is powerful and heartbreaking. Playwright Robert Harling’s sister is that young woman Shelby, and she died all too early, leaving her family and friends to grieve. M’Lynn is Harling’s mother.

Millicent K. Hunnicutt is cast as Truvy and embodies many of the characteristics and mannerisms of Dolly Parton. As Truvy, Hunnicutt’s big hair, dramatic flair, suggestive sexuality and caring ways keep her women friends close at heart and coming back to the style shop for gossip and more. They all love to gossip, especially Clairee, played by Catherine Lynn Davis. Davis’ wry wit, ready smile and twinkling eyes elevate what otherwise might be a minor character into a fascinating and healing force.

Be Boulay, as Truvy’s new stylist Annelle, also provides comic relief and heartfelt generosity. As Annelle, Boulay plays the role with gawky, shy movements and hidden talents for ugly sweaters and plastic art earrings. Boulay is a wonderful contrast to Renee Hewitt, who is a very crabby Ouiser, standoffish and only reluctantly one of the group, until she too reveals her good heart.

“Steel Magnolias” is performed in one beautifully detailed setting. The design of the cut-and-curl shop is tall to reflect the high spirits of the women and constructed with timbers to reflect their strength. The textures and angles of shingling, textiles, curves and corners shape the space into a private, close world, almost taken over by kudzu. A lot of thought and time went into props, so look out for the notions that will make you remember the ’80s: big hair, big glasses, plastic luggage with no wheels, a princess phone and boom box.

Oregon Cabaret Theatre presents the dinner and brunch menu for Addie-Jo’s of Louisiana, and desserts will particularly catch your attention, with Dick Hay Pie, Armadillo Groom’s Cake and Southern-Style Bread Pudding. Craft wine cocktails include a refreshing Mint Julep and Ouiser’s Punch made with pineapple and mango.

Oregon Cabaret Theatre has new table tops and upholstered seats. The new tables are narrower than previously but still spacious enough for four to dine happily.

“Steel Magnolias,” directed by Galloway Stephens, continues at OCT through March 22. For ticket information, see oregoncabaret.com or call the box office at 541-488-2902. OCT is at the corner of Hargadine and First streets in Ashland.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Photo by Christopher BriscoeRenee Hewitt, left, Catherine Lynn Davis, Julie Cardia, Katy Wilson, Be Boulay and Millicent Hunnicutt appear in Oregon Cabaret Theatre's production of "‘Steel Magnolias."