Steel Magnolias

Steel-Magnolias-photo-by-Janelle-McMenamin“I don’t go to plays because I can nap at home for free” remarks one of the characters in Robert Harling’s keenly observed play about female friendship.

No danger of napping in this production, which is given an affecting, thoughtful production by Free Rain Theatre, stylishly directed by Anne Somes.

The setting, a hairdressing salon in the fictional town of Chinquapin, Louisiana, provides the perfect environment for a group of friends to meet and share gossip and confidences and to provide comfort for each other when life deals out some tough challenges.

Cate Clelland’s attractive, functional set design incorporating all the everyday clutter of a well-equipped, small-town hairdressing salon looks authentic and provides a convincing environment for the salon owner Truvy Jones and her new assistant Annelle, to wash and set hair, apply nail treatments and serve coffees for their clients.

The authenticity of the environment is greatly supported by Justin Mullins’ imaginative sound design which at various times incorporates barking dogs, gun shots and radio programs. Craig Muller’s uneven lighting design however is less successful, particularly in the first act when actors were often left in gloom at the back of the stage even when engaged in the conversation.

Steel Magnolias is very much an ensemble piece and Somes has assembled an accomplished group of actors to portray the widely different personalities required. As the Salon owner, Truvy Jones, Helen McFarlane oozes good humour and efficiency as she goes about providing various treatments while calming stressed clients or keeping some semblance of propriety when hijinks threaten to get out of control. As her assistant, Annelle, Katy Larkin captures the young woman’s initial insecurity, while deftly portraying her growing self-confidence.

Though much too attractive to really convince as Ouiser, the town harridan, Lainie Hart never-the-less creates a delightfully quirky character who would be great to be around, while Janie Lawson adds to her repertoire of interesting characters portraying the warm-hearted, Clairee Belcher.

Although playwright Harling has provided his characters with some killer dialogue to keep the laughs coming, it’s the relationship between Shelby (Jess Waterhouse) and her mother M’Lynn (Victoria Tyrrell Dixon) which is the centrepiece of the play.

Shelby has Type 1 diabetes and has been warned against having children. Her over-protective mother, M’lynn, is worried when Shelby marries, and horrified when Shelby announces that she is pregnant.

Both Waterhouse and Tyrrell Dixon are quite wonderful depicting the tensions in the loving mother/daughter relationship. The final scenes in which Tyrell Dixon, as the stoic M’lynn, tries to shield her friends from her grief are riveting and very moving.

While the attention to detail with the props, the costumes and wigs throughout the play is commendable, the absence of information regarding timelines between the acts, and the challenge of coping with the variations in the broad Louisiana accents detracted from the overall enjoyment of the production.

That said, over the years Anne Somes with her Free Rain Theatre Company has produced many memorable productions. This production of Steel Magnolias will take its place among her best.

Steel Magnolias
ACT Hub, 14 Spinifex Street, Kingston (Canberra)
Performance: Saturday 13 May 2023
Season continues to 20 May 2023
Information and Bookings:

Image: Helen McFarlane, Katy Larkin, Jess Waterhouse, Janie Lawson, Lainie Hart and Victoria Tyrrell Dixon in Steel Magnolias – photo by Janelle McMenamin

Review: Bill Stephens OAM