Left to right: Amanda Menard, Ramona Godrey, Ginger Pierce, Sarah Venooker and Holly Biracree
Waterbury Festival Playhouse brings an old favorite to central Vermont with its production of Steel Magnolias. A play told exclusively through beauty-parlor chat runs the risk of being trifling, overacted, antifeminist or all three. But the Players present an ensemble piece that is both touching and laugh-out-loud funny.
First produced in 1987, Steel Magnolias was written by Robert Harling in memory of his sister, Susan, who died at age 33 of diabetes. It was enormously successful from the start, with a quick rise to Broadway and a 1989 film adaptation starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts. That star-studded cast delivered iconic performances, but the Playhouse steers clear of cheap Hollywood imitations. Helmed by artistic director George Pierce, this Steel Magnolias stands apart from the film.
Waterbury Festival Playhouse, the venue, is a "fabric building," as the website calls it — adding, "sort of a tent, but not really" — and blankets are available in case audience members get chilly. Upon arrival, they're transported to the mid-1980s. Preshow music includes hits such as "Don't Stop Believin'," "Into the Groove" and "Summer of '69."
Set designer Rick Loya and properties designer Kathy Barickman have created an in-home beauty parlor onstage. Picture bonnet hair dryers, salon chairs and posters featuring teased-out curls. Sitting in a Goodwill bin somewhere is an aerobics leotard the same neon green as these salon walls.
The dialogue offers amusing Southernisms such as, "Honey, there's so much static electricity in here, I pick up everything except boys and money." Salon owner Truvy Jones gets to utter many of these quips. Holly Biracree portrays Truvy's ditzy quirks with endearing charm. Her hairstyles and manicures are tiny expressions of love.
In the opening scene, Truvy is testing the skills of new hire Annelle Dupuy-Desoto. Sarah Venooker delivers a transformative performance; her character exhibits a new dominant trait in nearly every scene — including a Pinterest-level obsession with crafting.
Truvy tells Annelle that Saturday mornings in the beauty parlor are reserved for the neighborhood ladies. And one by one, they file in. Ginger Pierce plays Clairee Belcher, the former mayor's widow, embodying the role of a wise matriarch with elegance and grace. Pierce also served as costume designer and deserves kudos for the wigs and multiple wardrobe changes that enhance the world of this play.
Clairee's unlikely best friend, Ouiser (pronounced "Weezer") Boudreaux, whirls onto the stage like a bat out of hell, her barking dog wreaking havoc outside, and steals the show with her witty insults. Ouiser cuts the sweetness of her costars with sharp lines such as, "He's a real gentleman. I'll bet he takes the dishes out of the sink before he pees in it." Ramona Godfrey is a pure delight in the role, particularly as she delivers some of the more memorable quotes. "I'm not crazy; I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years" could be a bumper sticker.
The center of Steel Magnolias is the story of M'Lynn Eatenton and her daughter, Shelby, brought to life in this production by Linda Iannuzzi and Amanda Menard, respectively. Initially, they bicker over trivial matters, such as which hairstyle Shelby should wear at her upcoming wedding. But when Shelby's serious battle with diabetes is revealed, it's clear that M'Lynn's stern control over her daughter stems from deep worry. Shelby's argumentative defiance comes from a desperate need to grab her frail life by the horns and live it her way. Iannuzzi and Menard's onstage chemistry creates a tension that nonetheless shows an undercurrent of unconditional love.
The sum of the cast is greater than its parts. The women of this Steel Magnolias deliver unique performances that harmonize into one satisfying chord.
The cast's first preview performance was marred by some dropped lines and onstage fumbles in the first act. But in the second, the actors hit their stride. Their sparks of joy made the play feel spontaneous and vibrant. Most notably, when we learned that M'Lynn would donate a kidney to save Shelby's life, the theater was electric with suspense. The weight of worry was heavy in the ensemble's silence. Outside the Playhouse, a cricket chirped as Shelby said goodbye to her friends for the last time.
Unfortunately, before leaving this scene, Shelby turned on the radio, which jarringly blasted out "Freeze Frame" (by rockers the J. Geils Band). The soundscape of Waterbury's production leaves something to be desired; songs are often distracting and sometimes undermine the good work being done onstage. Surely the '80s produced music that would be more appropriate for that harrowing scene?
The climax came when Iannuzzi delivered her monologue about Shelby's death with raw emotion and vulnerability. She was not tempted by the dramatics of the moment to pace the stage and call out to the heavens. Rather, she remained in her salon chair and uttered a lament that, on preview night, left some audience members choking up. Iannuzzi seemed emboldened by the rapt attention of the other cast members. The sincerity of each woman's heartbreak was apparent, with not a caricature in sight.
Real catharsis occurs throughout this performance. Whether in laughter or in tears, the ensemble of Steel Magnolias carries this story admirably.
The next two weekends offer the only opportunity to see this Waterbury semiprofessional troupe, which produces one show per season. Pierce hinted at the possibility of a longer season next year, but for now, Steel Magnolias is it. And it is an opportunity to seize.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Women of Steel"