'Steel Magnolias': Bouquet of Empathy and Honesty : Director Michael Ross delivers the play's sincerity and realism with well-defined tempos and solid balance among a strong cast.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's very hard not to like the women in "Steel Magnolias." Sharply drawn, they share a sense of humor and have a lot of fun even when they are bickering. Their touching, eventually heartbreaking story takes place in Truvy's Beauty Spot, a garage salon in Chinquapin, La., where old friends and neighbors chew over the sometimes oddball events of their daily lives. This isn't Tennessee Williams country, or Faulkner's or Willa Cather's, but it's just as real.

The keys to Robert Harling's play are its sincerity and its realism, and at the Garden Grove Community Theatre, director Michael Ross understands that. His tempos are well-defined, and he has maintained a solid balance among the kaleidoscope of personalities. He realizes that the play belongs to young bride Shelby, and he builds it around Jacqueline Burnett's strong performance. Burnett is bright and witty as the diabetic who has been told about the dangers of childbirth but who refuses to let them interfere with her happiness.

Andrea La Vela is very strong as Shelby's sharp-edged but adoring mother, M'Lynn. In the final scene, her emotional control is remarkable: Even at her most wrenching, she remains gentle and affirming.

As Annelle, a confused new salon employee, Rae Ruff is very effective too; her use of detail and delicate shading beautifully form a characterization that is real and truthful. Annelle's bubbling enthusiasm for her newfound religion is not ridiculed in Ruff's performance, as it has been by some actresses. When the other women kid Annelle about it, her own soft amusement strikes just the right emotional tone.

*

If Carole Hennessy gets close to overplaying raucous salon owner Truvy, she never steps over the line, and winds up with a solid portrait of an ever-cheerful wife of a genuine couch potato.

Cary McLean holds in the reins on the outrageous Ouiser, the town character who asserts that she isn't crazy, she has "just been in a bad mood for 40 years." Carol Louise, as the widow of the town's ex-mayor who forges ahead with her life by buying the local radio station and doing sports color, shows similar restraint and puts a nice edge on her character's will to survive.

Written like a piece of music, "Magnolias" has to be performed that way. Ross has conducted his sextet accordingly, and each member plays with empathy and honesty.

* "Steel Magnolias," Garden Grove Community Theatre, St. Marks Street and Chapman Avenue, Garden Grove. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 8. $9. (714) 897-5122. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Jacqueline Burnett: Shelby

Andrea La Vela: M'Lynn

Carole Hennessy: Truvy

Rae Ruff: Annelle

Carol Louise: Clairee

Cary McLean: Ouiser

A Garden Grove Community Theatre production of Robert Harling's comedy-drama, produced by Philip Weitzman, directed by Michael Ross. Scenic design: Michael Ross, Philip Weitzman. Lighting design: Lee Schulman. Hair consultant: Jill Ely. Stage manager: Lisa Bennetts.

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