On Theater: This 'Steel' has proven durable

Time was, not that long ago, when local community and collegiate theater groups were pushing one another out of the way to gain access to Robert Harling's female-friendly dramatic comedy "Steel Magnolias." I once viewed three different productions of it in a five-week span.

It's been a while now since the ladies of Chinquapin, Louisiana congregated at Truvy's Beauty Shop for the entertainment of local audiences, long enough to qualify the current production at the Laguna Playhouse as a revival. And while the lines remain familiar, they're still quite able to provoke out-loud laughter or create a lump in the throat.

At Laguna, director Jenny Sullivan has assembled a fine group of Southern-fried, neighborly women to convey Harling's tasty mixture of colorful characters, which really is a series of punch lines possibly inspired by the early Neil Simon comedies. It's reported, however, that a traumatic incident in the author's own life actually prompted the creation of "Steel Magnolias."

Whatever, the result is quite enjoyable, a splendid example of ensemble interacting with only a few instances of star power in this give-and-take session of homespun hilarity. True, only five of the six make it to the final curtain, but that's not really a spoiler given the play's resurgence over the years, not to mention the hit movie that pretty much introduced the world to Julia Roberts.

Roberts' character, the pretty-in-pink bride Shelby, is beautifully enacted by Alyson Lindsay, whose love for her family and life itself infuses the Laguna production. Her independent spirit — willing to bear a child in spite of her diabetic condition — is a particular factor in a memorable performance.

Truvy, the beauty shop operator whose sunny disposition and wisecracking persona set the tone for the overall comedic flavor, is neatly interpreted by Stephanie Zimbalist. Her character's heart and soul come through with a fine flourish. Despite Truvy's insistence that "there's no such thing as natural beauty," Zimbalist maintains a spirited exception.

Joanna Strapp enacts Truvy's assistant, Annelle, as a slightly goofy, rootless urchin bereft of husband and finances as the play opens but whose future brightens (with the aid of a little religion) as time passes. She's individualistic without being intrusive, even when interrupting the action for a prayer.

Shelby's mother, M'Lynn, is rigidly played by Elyse Mirto, whose stern but loving attitude keeps her daughter grounded. Mitro most exemplifies the play's title, and her difficult enactment in the play's final scene will bring out the handkerchiefs in the audience.

As the widow of the town mayor, who follows the local football teams and purchases the city's radio station, Von Rae Wood functions as the most "normal" character of the six, slipping in an occasional barbed comment but remaining basically in the background.

Then there's the scrappy Ouiser, whose feud with M'Lynn's (unseen) husband is the stuff of neighborhood legend. Teri Ralston returns to her Laguna roots to flesh out this obstreperous character with a double dose of comedic zeal. (Back in 1965, my first year reviewing theater for the Daily Pilot, I recall her sunny sweetness as the ingenue in "The Fantasticks" at the old Laguna Playhouse.)

The garage converted to a beauty shop is nicely realized by set designer Jim Prodger, the theater's production manager making his debut in this category. Heidi Leigh Hanson's colorful costumes enhance the show's appeal, as do the lighting effects of D. Martyn Bookwalter and Corinne Carrillo's sound designs.

"Steel Magnolias" may be an old war horse of a play with a good many miles on its local odometer, but it's still fresh, funny and comfortable as an old shoe in its colorful revival at the Laguna Playhouse.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Steel Magnolias"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (with matinees May 16 and 23 at 2 p.m.) until May 26

Cost: $35 to $65

Information: (949) 497-2787 or http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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