If you’ve never seen the 1989 Sally Field-Shirley MacLaine-Julia Roberts-Dolly Parton-Olympia Dukakis-Daryl Hannah film “Steel Magnolias,” skip it. Instead, see the live play of the same name at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be amazed at the talent on stage. These six actresses definitely know how to effortlessly make you chuckle while also tugging at your heartstrings.
Johanna McKenzie Miller, making her Drury Lane directing debut, and associate artistic director/casting director Matthew Carney have a dream cast to tell this comedic/dramatic tale of six women and their (unseen) men in 1980s rural Louisiana. Elizabeth Ledo is Truvy, whose carport-converted-to-beauty-salon is the setting for all four scenes of the two-act play.
Truvy is justifiably proud to have the most successful shop in town. As she tells her newest employee, Annelle (Lillian Castillo), in the opening scene, the reason for her success is her strict philosophy: “There’s no such thing as natural beauty.”
Their most important customer on this particular April day is Shelby (Cordelia Dewdney), who’s going to be married that afternoon. The nervously excited Shelby, whose colors are blush and bashful – yes, two different shades of pink – isn’t a regular at the salon, but her mother, M’Lynn (Amy J. Carle), is. M’Lynn, who also stops by the salon to prepare for her daughter’s big day, is very protective – perhaps overly so – of Shelby, who is more than ready to move away with her new husband, whom she met at a party. (“There’s something so attractive about how stupid he looked.”)
Also awaiting her turn in one of Truvy’s chairs is Clairee (Susie McMonagle), the wealthy widowed wife of the former mayor of Chinquapin, who’s looking for something new to occupy her time; she and the eternally grumpy Ouiser (Janet Ulrich Brooks) provide much of the good-natured humor/sarcasm in Robert Harling’s script (“You’re just playing hard to get.” “At her age, she should be playing ‘Beat the Clock!’”).
Subsequent scenes in December, 18 months after that (June), and the following November give us a glimpse into how the lives and attitudes of this sextet can change while their friendships remain strong. As Truvy puts it at one point, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” That may not be the secret sauce for the success of the salon, but it definitely encapsulates the overall effect of the plot and these performances, especially Carle’s as M’Lynn. Her Act Two, Scene 2 monologue alone is Jefferson Award-worthy.
Angela Weber Miller’s scenic design and Cassy Schillo’s props are also effective, providing a definite sense of place, from the Spanish moss (or weeping willow branches?) hanging on the top of the salon to the unique Christmas tree decorated by Annelle. The work of costume designer Jessica Pabst is also worthy of praise, clearly showing Clairee’s sense of chic style, Shelby’s passion for pink, and the admittedly wacky hat that the one-of-a-kind Ouiser likes to wear.
Did anything take me out of the reality of the friendship and emotions shared by these characters? Yes, and since none of the actresses “phoned it in,” it’s ironic that a phone onstage whose ring couldn’t be heard well – and an audience member’s phone whose distracting and distinctive ring could easily be heard at one point in Act Two – were what frustrated me. Hopefully, bumping up the volume of a sound effect and all audience members remembering to silence their phones will prevent similar frustration for others.
Also, be advised that unlike the policy at many Chicago theaters, masks are not currently required at Drury Lane. (I wore mine.)
In summary, though, if you want to laugh, and you’re willing to wear waterproof mascara (if any), head to Drury Lane this summer. These “Magnolias” are definitely in bloom.
• Paul Lockwood is a singer, local theater actor, Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, occasional theater reviewer, podcaster, columnist, and past president of TownSquare Players. He’s lived in Woodstock for more than 21 years.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Steel Magnolias”
WHERE: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace.
WHEN: Through Aug. 7
INFORMATION: www.drurylanetheatre.com, 630-530-0111