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'Magnolias' is dated but not stale

The Hermosa Beach Playhouse production is a bit overblown, but actresses dive right in on some juicy roles.

January 23, 2008|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

If we were to bombard the Middle East with multiple touring companies of Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias," we might solve a lot of our problems in that region. Surely, the waves of estrogen emanating from Harling's comedic weepie would inspire any bellicose men in the vicinity to drop their weapons and organize a bake sale.

First produced off-Broadway in 1987, "Magnolias" was adapted in short order into the 1989 film that garnered Julia Roberts an Oscar nomination as ailing Shelby Eatenton, a spunky Southern miss whose decision to bear a child in defiance of all medical advice costs her dearly. Of course, the vehicle also affords juicy roles for actresses of a certain vintage, a poignant reminder that, yes, indeed, women -- even women over 40 -- once routinely had leading roles in feature films.

Harling's play has been frequently produced for obvious reasons. There are laughs aplenty, and the emotional denouement, however predictable, will probably elicit a few covert sobs from most audience members. That said, the years have not been kind to Harling's reductive treatment of Southern womanhood, which badly needs some Botox in its saggy spots.

The current production at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse is not quite what the plastic surgeon ordered. A framed motto hanging on the set proclaims, "There is no such thing as natural beauty" -- an adage that director Stephanie A. Coltrin apparently has taken too much to heart. Although her staging is generally solid, Coltrin tends toward the overblown in a bouffant styling that further dates an already dated play.

Set in Louisiana in the mid-1980s, the action transpires entirely in a small-town beauty shop operated by Truvy Jones (Sara Borgeson), the sole support of her unemployed, couch potato husband. Truvy has just hired beautician Annelle (Carolyn Cannon), a newcomer to town who has her own share of man troubles. Not that the pesky men in question would be caught dead in this all-female world, a cozy microcosm keenly realized in Christopher Beyries' scrupulously detailed set.

Among Truvy's regulars are M'Lynn (Kimberly Patterson), mother of the beautiful, sickly Shelby (Meredith Rensa). Then there's Clairee (Lois Bourgon), the wealthy widow of the late mayor, and the irascible Ouiser (Susan Gordon), a sourpuss meant to act as a comedic counterpoint to all that female empathy.

Unfortunately, in her flat and mannered performance, Gordon sometimes plays directly to the audience, a directorial blip that should be addressed, while Bourgon's shaky grasp of her dialogue is a further distraction. Fortunately, the rest of the cast is accomplished. Cannon is consistently adorable, Patterson is admirably staunch, and Rensa supplies the requisite spunk and sparkle.

Borgeson, however, gives the standout turn, lending warmth and depth to a character that could easily devolve into caricature. Her performance is a reminder that, given a bit more subtlety and veracity, these steely "Magnolias" could still support a solid entertainment.


'Steel Magnolias'

Where: Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $35 to $45

Contact: (310) 372-4477 or www.hermosabeachplay

Running time: 2 hours,

15 minutes

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