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THEATER REVIEW 'STEEL MAGNOLIAS' : Down to Earth : The Santa Barbara production of Robert Harling's play about a Louisiana beauty salon lacks stars--and doesn't miss them.


If ever a striking example were needed of the fallacy that effective stage plays can be made easily into good films, it would be Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias." In every way, it's tighter and more compelling on stage than it was on the screen, as the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group production so capably demonstrates.

Unfortunately, the entire run is sold out, though a trek to the box office for no-shows might pay off. But even if you're not lucky enough to wangle tickets, there are still aspects of the piece worth considering.

Harling's play presents us with a vision of strength and survival amid adversity that is very different from the independent islands of self-reliance in which our cultural heroes are so frequently cast. That vision emerges not as an intellectual premise but in a hazier, emotional context that is very tricky to stage. Fortunately, director Pope Freeman has avoided the temptation to become sidetracked by the script's ample one-liners and keeps the focus on the human truths throughout.

The protagonists of "Steel Magnolias" are the regular customers of Truvy's beauty parlor, the residents of a small Louisiana town where everyone knows everyone else's business. Truvy provides more than facials and haircuts to her clients, however. In Cali Rae Turner's brash, exuberant portrayal, she's mother, counselor and referee as the need arises.

And it frequently does, for these women face a convincing host of problems and fears evoked by the playwright with penetrating insight, sympathy and no small measure of personal history. Like the doomed Shelby (Christina Eliasson), Harling's sister died from complications of diabetes, and although her circumstances have obviously been reshaped for the stage, the anguish and loss ring with conviction in his original script.

Missing here are the revisions as well as the overly precious glamour of the film version, which was too much a star-studded outing for Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, et. al., to be taken seriously as a slice of life. Free from celestial distractions, it's easier to accept these women as ordinary people struggling to find purpose in their lives. And when they do--like Sarah Burdette as Shelby's mother--they achieve a more authentic heroic stature as well.

Because the play takes place entirely inside the beauty parlor over a 1 1/2-year span, the confessions and confrontations are more organically tied to the setting. This is the kind of exploration women with time on their hands and no men around could believably engage in. It's also clear here--as it wasn't in the film--that the emotional bonding between these women can occur only within the salon's pink, hair spray-scented confines. That is its strength and its limitation. The salon is a secret garden into which Truvy's initiates can flee to take stock of their lives and air their deepest joys and sorrows.

This, of course, situates the drama squarely in the sphere of feminine relationships, so it's no coincidence that there are no men in the cast. Males typically create their emotional support structure in code through sports, cars, high-tech gadgets, etc.--and there's little chance they could tolerate, much less participate on, this alien turf.

It would be hard to imagine a bunch of guys reaching for collective awareness and support the way Truvy's regulars do in Shelby's wake. I remember very different, and far lonelier, circumstances coping with my own father's death when I was 21; nothing like these women's open-armed camaraderie was even an option, and I was barely even aware that I could have used it.

In contemporary dramas, men's emotional truths are restricted to the battlefield of ambition and power struggles (witness David Mamet's metaphor of life as domination), so the messier emotional material gets relegated to women's plays.

This isn't Harling's fault, and he does a superb job of penetrating the sensibilities of the opposite sex. Still, it's ultimately saddening to consider how primitive and unexamined things are from the male side--in all likelihood, the story of Shelby's father and husband would have made a far less emotionally articulated tragedy.

There's an implicit challenge here for dredging more of the subterranean currents of men's emotional lives to the surface, both on and off the stage.


"Steel Magnolias," 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, at the Studio Theatre at Santa Barbara City College through May 18. Tickets are $12 Friday and Saturday, and $10 Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. For information, call 965-5935.

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