A perennial bloomer on the revival circuit, Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias" still has the emotional stamina to make weeping willows of us all in a well-cultivated staging at Burbank's Falcon Theatre.
Loosely based on the real-life loss of Harling's sister to complications from diabetes, this 1987 drama crosses heart-rending tragedy with a fondly observed portrait of life in a small Louisiana parish, as friendships are nurtured and tested within the confines of a neighborhood beauty shop over a two-year period.
The play's six exceptionally well-defined women's roles offer a ripe opportunity to explore emotional nuance through ensemble performances, which director D. Lynn Meyers steers with generally admirable success despite a few awkward lapses in pacing.
One of the production's smartest choices was casting Beth Grant as sassy salon owner Truvy, who not only serves as beautician for the group but also confessor, counselor and organizer as she presides over the group's bonding sessions with pitch-perfect earthy cheer ("There's no such thing as natural beauty" is her war cry).
Wrapped in Grant's soothing drawl and gentle but firm insistence, Truvy's passion for helping others becomes a force of nature. Her sympathy and tolerance are convincingly established as she takes runaway wallflower Annelle (a disarmingly quirky Madison Dunaway) under her wing in the opening scene.
Enlisting veteran Ruta Lee as Clairee, the recently widowed wife of the town's former mayor, was another inspired choice. In an unusually lively incarnation of this character, Lee's husky delivery milks every ounce of worldly wit and sarcasm from Clairee's breezy one-liners. As her surly antagonist (and closet best friend), Ouiser, Kathryn Joosten parlays the craggy delivery of her "West Wing" presidential secretary into a suitably cantankerous presence. But the pained lack of energy in her reading prevents the character from being the feisty, prickly thorn who's supposed to get so deeply under everyone's skin.
As the doomed diabetic Shelby, Beth Anne Garrison delivers a perky pink petunia of a performance, but when needed summons the gravitas to make credible her character's decision to have a child against the advice of her doctors.
The real anchor of the piece, however, is Shelby's mother, M'Lynn, superbly portrayed by Karen Valentine. Torn between a parent's protective impulse and the recognition that her child must live her own life, every facet of M'Lynn's ordeal is rendered with precision and conviction in a complex, finely nuanced reading.
Production values are first-rate. Lew Abramson's scenic design frames the action in a florid beauty parlor milieu that's homey enough to be charming and tacky enough to be amusing, while Diana Eden's colorful costumes and inflated hairstyles project the characters' personalities with hilarious (and sometimes frightening) period flair.
To her credit, director Meyers never indulges the play's abundant humor at the expense of emotional authenticity. Rather, we see the jokes for what they are -- essential survival aids for getting through the heartache and loss endured by these flowers whose feminine fragility, as the title informs us, is only skin-deep.
Where: Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank
When: Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m.
Ends: Nov. 23
Contact: (818) 955-8101
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes