STAGE REVIEW : Taking a Peek Under the Dryer

Times Theater Critic

"Steel Magnolias" at the Pasadena Playhouse is not art theater. It is set in a small-town beauty shoppe where nobody is ever at a loss for a zinger. You can picture the characters going next door to Mel's Diner for lunch.

It employs the conflict between a bossy mother and her stubborn daughter to the same heart-tugging effect as did "Terms of Endearment," but with a different disease.

They recently finished filming the movie version down in Louisiana.

What can I tell you? I liked it. This play may obey the demands of the market, but it also feels like the kind of play that the author, Robert Harling, wanted to write.

Perhaps it was the only kind he could bear to write, given the fact that it's based on an incident in his family. We don't need the program note to sense memory at work here.

Harling may have invented the beauty shop, but he clearly didn't invent the mother and daughter. They are seen straight on, and they are played that way by Barbara Rush and Tracy Shaffer. Don't be too sure you know what's coming next in this play.

Nor did Harling invent the bond that can develop between women who have known each other forever. But he does evoke that bond, more successfully than some female playwrights have done.

We have all seen plays that reveal what man-hungry cats women are when they get together behind closed doors, starting with Mrs. Luce's "The Women."

Not here. Harling's women do have their differences, as when the subject of "born-again" Christians comes up, not a joke in this little Louisiana town.

But in general, Harling's women have a ball getting together every Saturday at Truvy's salon to get their hair done and to catch up on the week. And their conversation is not restricted to the men in their lives. In some cases, that's the last thing they want to talk about.

Perish forbid that anyone should take "Steel Magnolias" as a feminist play. Harling's women are Cosmo readers, not Ms. readers. It's still 1955 in Chinquapin, La., and it will ever be. Look at the hair styles.

But nobody is stuck in the why-am-I-nothing-without-a-man syndrome. Truvy (Ronnie Claire Edwards) runs her own shop. Clairee (Eve Brent) is thinking about buying a radio station. Ousier (Carole Cook) is turning into a crazy old tomato-growing Southern woman because she wants to, dammit.

These gals speak right up. That includes Shaffer as Rush's daughter. It's her wedding, and she's going to have pink, not peaches-and-cream. (Rush rolls her eyes to heaven.) It's her life, and she's going to have a baby, not adopt one. And everything is going to be just fine.

This isn't a spoiled Southern belle, but a capable person who knows that things have to be paid for. Rush is even more aware of that fact, but has learned that there is a point beyond which her daughter can't be pushed.

She keeps trying, however. Like Bess in "A Woman of Independent Means," she can't bear to leave anything to chance. Shaffer, for her part, can't bear to be arranged. They're mother and daughter indeed. The love is as strong as the need to have one's way.

You'll recognize these two. You'll also recognize Carole Cook under that straw hat, the only actor in Los Angeles with her own built-in amplification system. Cook does her best to submerge herself within the character. No go.

But her boldness plays nicely against the softer, but equally lethal, tones of the rest of the gang at Truvy's salon, each of whom prides herself on being a lady, within reason.

Under Pamela Berlin's direction (Berlin also staged the original Off Broadway production), this is a real ensemble. There is Edwards as Truvy herself, a big "romance" fan despite being married to absolutely the wrong guy for it. Truvy is ready to laugh with her customers, cry with them and, especially, hope with them.

There's Eve Brent, who has the difficult job of playing the group's designated comic: hard because at times they all seem to be comics, using the same gag writer. There's Dana Hill, so good as the little sister in "Picnic." She's equally valuable as Truvy's helper, a game young woman who hadn't figured that growing up would be this bumpy.

Truvy's salon features more different shades of red than you will find in the Revlon catalogue. (Edward Gianfrancesco did the set.) But costume designer Garland Riddle allows each character to make her own fashion statement, such as Truvy's magenta harem pants--or would you say more of a burgundy?

A man would say "Who cares?" That's precisely why Truvy's friends have to check in with each other. They have more fun on Saturday morning than most people do on Saturday night. You'll have fun too.

Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, at 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, and at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Closes Oct. 16. Tickets $17-$25. 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. (818) 356-PLAY.

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