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Live review: 'Steel Magnolias' at La Mirada Theatre

The Southern favorite blooms with a cast of seasoned pros who really know how to time a laugh and jerk a tear. Don't forget your hankies.

October 09, 2009|F. Kathleen Foley

The DWP is missing a bet. The waterworks at La Mirada Theatre's current production of "Steel Magnolias" could go a long way toward ending the drought.

Set in a northern Louisiana beauty parlor, Robert Harling's 1987 comedy-drama, made into a star-studded 1989 film, revolves around the travails of Shelby Eatenton, a spunky Southern belle who elects to have a baby in defiance of all dire medical warnings. But the real business of Harling's work is the female bonding that underscores the story line.

Over the years, "Magnolias" has arguably been done to death, not only for its sheer sentimental power, but also because the play provides showy roles for actresses of a decidedly mature vintage.

Salon owner Truvy (Christa Jackson) is a warm-hearted good ol' gal whose newly hired beautician, Annelle (Emma Fassler), has a "story," as do all the women who frequent Truvy's. Wife of the town's recently deceased mayor, Clairee (Rosina Reynolds) is adjusting to her new widowhood. Then, of course, there's sweetly courageous Shelby (Amy Sloan) and her proudly protective mother, M'Lynn (Cathy Rigby). And just to balance things out, there's sourpuss Ouiser (Michael Learned), who injects vinegar into all the sugar and spice.

But just when you thought this creaky vehicle had no more tread on its tires, along comes this group of seasoned pros who really know how to time a laugh and jerk a tear. By production's end, no matter how familiar you are with this material, you might find yourself sobbing discreetly into your hanky.

That's largely because of, and sometimes in spite of, director Brian Kite, who emphasizes the core of truth in each character rather than their regional eccentricities. That tack strengthens our emotional connection to the piece and serves its comedic elements quite nicely.

Yet, when it comes to the crucial business of hairstyling, Kite should have called for a consult from a beauty school. Truvy, who is styling Shelby's hair for her wedding, combs pointlessly and obsessively, like a trichotillomaniac pondering her next meal.

That's a shame, since John Iacovelli's beautifully executed salon set is so convincing that the fakery seems particularly jarring.

But a uniformly winning cast compensates for a botched 'do or two. Rigby underplays M'Lynn almost to a fault -- an initial restraint that makes her later meltdown all the more ravaging. And multiple Emmy-winner Learned ("The Waltons," "Nurse") underscores the crabby Ouiser with a nudge and a wink. Her wry, dry exchanges with the comically astute Reynolds -- the other standout of the show -- sparkle with the energy of old hands comfortable in their characters' skins. They are proof that even chestnuts like "Magnolias," when roasted to a turn, can still snap, crackle and pop.



'Steel Magnolias'

Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 28.

Price: $35 to $50

Contact: (562) 944-9801,

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