Play Review: Steel Magnolias

The highlight of last night’s girls’ night out was the viewing of the play Steel Magnolias at Joplin Little Theater. Seven of us…my mom, my two sisters, and my daughters and daughter-in-law…sat in the darkened theater for the sold out performance. The play presents the timeless story of “six characters as delicate as magnolias but as tough as steel.”

The Joplin production of Steel Magnolias stars Shanti Navarre, Abbi Epperson, Ann Grace Lile, Ashley Trotnic, Diane Martinous and Lisa Olliges Green. Tegan Whited directed. The play was written by Robert Harling and was originally produced by the WPA Theatre, New York City, in 1987.

The setting for Steel Magnolias is Chinquapin, Louisiana, 1986 – 1987, with all scenes taking place in the salon of Truvy Jones (Navarre). Truvy has just hired young Annelle (Epperson), a new girl in town whose husband has abandoned her.

Annelle (Abbi Epperson) in Steel Magnolias. Photo from Joplin Little Theater Facebook page.

Truvy’s beauty shop is the gathering place every Saturday morning for a group of long time friends. Clairee (Lile), Ouiser (Olliges Green), M’Lynn (Martinous) and M’Lynn’s daughter Shelby (Trotnic) drift in and out of the salon, getting their hair and nails done by Truvy or Annelle as they share life experiences.

Shelby is currently the center of the group’s attention. The play opens on the day of her wedding and as the mother and daughter are getting their hair put up and nails painted, we learn that there is tension between them. Shelby has diabetes. M’Lynn is very protective of her daughter’s health, encouraging Shelby to drink orange juice when her blood sugar drops and sharing with the group of friends that the doctors have advised Shelby that pregnancy poses a grave risk.

During Scene 1 we are also given some backstory on each of the other characters. Truvy runs a successful business, providing excellent salon services to the ladies of Chinquapin. Annelle is starting her life over after a failed marriage. Clairee has recently become a widow and she is learning to live alone while rediscovering who she is and what she wants to do. M’Lynn has an emotionally charged marriage and two sons younger than Shelby. And Ouiser is the most outspoken member of the circle of friends, claiming she has been in a bad mood for decades.

Scene 2 begins just before Christmas, 1986. Shelby, who has been married since the spring, surprises her mother with a trip home, and big news. Against all odds, and the doctors’ advice, she is pregnant. M’Lynn is less than thrilled. Her concern is for Shelby’s health and well being. Shelby, however, remains optimistic about delivering a healthy baby.

During Scene 3, which takes place in June of 1987, Shelby and her mother reveal to the group of friends that her fragile health is failing. Although Shelby gave birth three months prematurely, her baby boy is healthy and thriving. Shelby is experiencing kidney failure and has begun dialysis. Her only hope for continued good health is a kidney transplant. M’Lynn is the closest match available for her daughter. The surgery is scheduled for the next day, much to the shock of the friends. M’Lynn explains that she feels honored to have given life to her daughter twice.

The final scene opens in November of 1987. The black clothing of the friends, the somber mood and the absence of Shelby hint at what’s about to unfold. Annelle has remarried, deepened her faith, and she is nearing the time for the birth of her first child. Clairee has just returned from a dream trip to France. And Ouiser has reconnected with a former male classmate.

From M’Lynn the audience learns of Shelby’s fate. The transplant ultimately failed. After falling into a coma, Shelby passed away at the hospital. The funeral is planned for that afternoon. Through her grief, M’Lynn shares that she was there when Shelby was born and there holding her hand when she slipped away. When M’Lynn expresses anger over her daughter’s untimely death, her friends rally around her, each offering to the heartbroken mother out of their strengths and different perspectives. We see how incredibly precious the gift of friendship is.

This was a very big deal for me, to go see this play. I have purposely avoided the movie, based on the play, since its release in 1989. Without knowing the story, I only knew that the movie was sad. That’s all I needed to know. Due to my difficulties in shedding tears and allowing myself to feel sad emotions, I have successfully stayed away from the film.

When I learned that Joplin Little Theater was presenting Steel Magnolias, I felt it was time to experience this story and not shy away from my emotions. What better companions could I have than my own circle of strong women? I cherish the relationships that I have with each woman and I am grateful that they chose to accompany me to the play.

I was impressed with the creativity of the production. All four scenes took place in the beauty shop, which meant we learned the story through the conversations and interactions of the characters. I adore that kind of cleverness. And the cast of women was amazing. Each actress brought her very best to her role, making the audience laugh in delight or weep in sympathy. These fine performers deserved the standing ovation that they received at the end of the play.

I thought that watching the story unfold as a live performance would lessen the emotional impact on me. After all, there wasn’t a soundtrack of dramatic music to cue my emotions or a long, drawn out hospital scene that depicted Shelby’s death. I was wrong. The sincere and deeply moving portrayals by the cast as the recounted the end of Shelby’s life bypassed my logical brain and zinged right into my heart. My eyes welled up, as M’Lynn spoke passionately about her daughter, and a single tear trickled down my cheek.

I am grateful for the opportunity to see Steel Magnolias in the format it was originally created in. I am even more grateful to have family members seated with me. More than friends, we understand the joys and challenges that life can present. We are daughters, and mothers. We know the fierce desire to live life on our own terms and the equally fierce love that a mother has always for her children. We left united in our appreciation for each other and in our determination to walk alongside each other on this journey we call Life.

And now, at last, I have the Steel Magnolias movie queued up on my Amazon Prime watchlist. I am ready to watch it. I am ready to experience whatever emotions this story draws from me.

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