In the first scene of the play “Steel Magnolias,” Robert Harling’s 1987 love letter to small-town Southern women, two Louisiana friends share favorites from their recipe boxes. Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa Cake is so straightforward, it doesn’t even require an index card:
“It’s a cuppa flour, a cuppa sugar, a cuppa fruit cocktail with juice, and you mix and bake at 350 till gold and bubbly,” Truvy says. Yes, it’s rich, she admits. “That’s why I serve it over ice cream to cut the sweetness.”
Like a lot of Southern cooking, this play — and the 1989 movie based on it, for which Harling wrote the screenplay — doesn’t stint on the sugar. But of course, as experienced bakers know, without a pinch of salt, sugar can be just plain cloying. The batter for “Steel Magnolias,” as Cameron Watson’s revival at Actors Co-op endearingly demonstrates, may not cook up into haute cuisine, but it has just enough salty, sour, bitter and umami, along with the sweet, to engage the entire palate. I challenge the most sophisticated of you not to cry at the end.
One of few dramas with all-female casts (male roles were written for the movie), “Steel Magnolias” is even rarer in that its characters aren’t catty witches designated for morally satisfying comeuppances. The six women who gather in Truvy’s garage hair salon (the play’s only set, lovingly designed by Stephen Gifford) are so different in temperament, so mutually loving and supportive, so essential to one another’s emotional sustenance, that they seem like facets of a single soul or roots of one tree. As the title suggests, they are portrayed here as the unsung heroes of a lost America, their delicate, fleeting beauty (the magnolias) belying their inner strength (the steel).
OK, this attitude might seem a bit condescending. Conversation in the womblike sanctity of Truvy’s salon on Saturday mornings — the slot Truvy reserves for her regulars — revolves around hair, naturally enough. The play challenges the actresses playing Truvy (Nan McNamara) and her young assistant, Annelle (Heidi Palomino), to spend all 2 hours 15 minutes of the running time styling the other four actresses’ hair into a series of looks suggestive of the three years that are supposed to pass in the outside world. Shelby (Ivy Beech) evolves, style-wise, from a bride to a young mother, while her own mother, M’Lynn (Treva Tegtmeier), struggles to maintain her “brown football helmet” despite hardships that threaten it. Widow Clairee (Lori Berg) grows ever more adventurous as her hair gets shorter, while Ouiser (or Louise, played by Deborah Marlowe) signals her ill temper with an inflexible wash-and-go look.
Of course it would be impractical for these stage stylists to use real water or shampoo, and blow-dryers are awfully noisy, so the actresses are obliged to fill a lot of time flattening and then fluffing up the same bangs. And at one point, in real time, McNamara executes a wedding chignon that could be on a Brides magazine cover. (The production’s hair designer, Jessica Mills, worked hard.)
But occasionally the choreography starts to feel a little stale — possibly reflecting the strain inherent in positing a hair salon as a microcosm of the human condition. Don’t get me wrong: Hair is important, and the salon has a great deal to teach us about ourselves and others. But maybe it’s only part of the story.
To be fair, the characters in “Steel Magnolias” don’t exclusively discuss hair. They also talk, sometimes saucily, sometimes movingly, about their marriages, lovers, children, careers, hopes and dreams, private tragedies. Their men are offstage gunshots and anecdotes: maddening, unpredictable, foolish, ultimately redeemable. But even in this apparent matriarchy, every woman onstage is wholly invested in the feeding, romancing, enduring and inspiring of those men.
Beautiful, kind-hearted Shelby, the story’s Christ figure, is willing to give up everything to bear a son — a trade the other women accept as reasonable, even redemptive. None of them talk about politics, or social justice.
The play’s obliviousness to the world beyond these white characters and its veneration for stereotypical gender roles might make “Steel Magnolias” feel like a relic of its time to some audience members. But even an old-fashioned recipe, when lovingly prepared and seasoned with touches like period costumes (by Terry A. Lewis), a nostalgic soundtrack (by Cameron Combe) and authentic-sounding accents (coached by Adam Michael Rose) can taste good. Watson’s “Steel Magnolias” owes a lot of its charm to six particular ingredients: Ivy Beech, Lori Berg, Deborah Marlowe, Nan McNamara, Heidi Palomino and Treva Tegtmeier.
Where: Actors Co-op David Schall Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St. (on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood), L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through May 5 (Dark on Easter weekend.)
Info: (323) 462-8460, www.ActorsCo-op.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (with one intermission)
Support our coverage of local theater by becoming a digital subscriber.
See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.