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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Magnolias’ Flower in Den of Intrigue

Times Theater Writer

Everything about “Steel Magnolias,” which rolled into the Wilshire Theatre over the weekend, works the way it shouldn’t.

It’s a comedy filled with zingers that turns into a drama. It’s a first professional effort that turned into a hit. And it had only intended to be a personal short story that turned into a play (and is about to turn into a movie).

In this regard, “Magnolias” grew like Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy,” another bit of Southern rue based loosely on personal recollection that went from being a small Off-Broadway hit to a national tour and (soon to come) a movie. All similarity stops there, however.

“Magnolias” is based on playwright Robert Harling’s sister’s story and was written to exorcise a ghost and give a 2-year-old nephew an image of the mother he might not otherwise remember. It happens in a small-town Louisiana beauty parlor, that well-known den of neighborhood intrigue where dogs and secrets aren’t allowed and advice comes free with shampoo and set.

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Under such circumstances, Harling could have written a perfectly awful comedy. What he wrote instead is a tempered one, not totally expert (it has its peaks and valleys), but buoyed by the truth of his personal story. We’re not talking Tennessee Williams here, but despite a static first act that survives on one-liners and a familiar gallery of Southern types, it rips and snorts along.

The linchpin of this environment is big-boned, big-mouthed, big-hearted beauty-shop owner Truvy (a well-chosen Margo Martindale), who lives by the golden rule that “there is no such thing as natural beauty.” Her sidekick is a terrorized stray kitten named Annelle (Dawn Hopper) who eventually discovers religion, marriage and pregnancy, fortunately in that order.

The shop “regulars” are a sweet and placid Clairee (Marion Ross), the former mayor’s widow; Ouiser, the monster who lives next door (Carole Cook in flaming carrot hair and a deep, permanent temper); M’Lynn (Barbara Rush), the epitome of Southern grace; and her beautiful daughter, Shelby (Tracy Shaffer).

By the end of Act I the handwriting’s on the wall. Through the snappy gossip, catty banter, Ouiser’s onslaughts, Annelle’s weirdness and Truvy’s pearls of wisdom (“I gotta tell you, when it comes to suffering, she’s right there with Elizabeth Taylor”), we learn that Shelby, who’s a diabetic and was told not to have children, has decided to have a child anyway. That leaves the play’s second act with few surprises.

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But it does have some. The heart of the play rests on Rush and Shaffer as mother and daughter. Shaffer’s fresh, unaffected debutante beauty as Shelby has backbone and Rush is a ramrod. Yet for all the funny lines and offstage circumstances Harling sets up, there are as many where he drops the ball. The final scene, particularly, leaves performers at loose ends, looking balefully on at the gathering strength and eventual dazzle of Rush’s expertly calibrated emotional breakdown. She keeps it from slipping on soap with a rigorous performance that is all dignity, anger and torment--until some good hearty laughter breaks the spell and recaptures the balance.

In Clairee especially, the playwright has created one of those utility characters with little to do. It gets by here on Ross’ natural humor and charm, while Hopper merely has to rely heavily on Southern gawk for Annelle. As the turbulent Ouiser, Cook is a maelstrom come to life. “I’ve been in a very bad mood for 40 years,” she fumes, nostrils flared, waiting for smoke to follow. She shares the best of the one-liners with Martindale.

Director Pamela Berlin, who has guided this play from its Off-Broadway origins to Pasadena (a hit at the Playhouse last year) and now the Wilshire, knows how to negotiate the difficult rhythms Harling has set up. She steers the play with a good deal of assurance, though the pace flagged on occasion opening night.

Designers Edward T. Gianfrancesco (set), Martin Aronstein (lights), Garland Riddle (costumes) and Bobby H. Grayson (hair) have given “Magnolias” authenticity. Anyone who has ever caught so much as a whiff of just such a neighborhood bastion of female bonding, will recognize it at once.

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Ultimately, one admires “Steel Magnolias” not for its workmanship but for its underlying truth. The format may be unexceptional, but with the help it gets from this cast, it’ll keep you moved and entertained.

At 8440 Wilshire Blvd. (near La Cienega Blvd.), Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays 2 and 7 p.m., until Aug. 20. Tickets: $15-$32.50; (213) 410-1062, (714) 634-1300 or (619) 268-9686.


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