by ERIKA SASSEVILLE
From shoulder pads, high-waisted denim and wild patterns to perms, curls, and all-around big, poofy hairstyles, the ‘80s are fondly remembered for wild fashion trends. Playing now through December 15 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Steel Magnolias, written by Robert Harling in 1987, was followed in 1989 by a film starring Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, and a fresh young actress named Julia Roberts. Set in Chinquapin, Louisiana, Steel Magnolias is ripe with southern comforts. Drawling mentions of Baptists and Methodists, junior leagues and beauty pageants are peppered in with “bless your hearts” to quickly transport the audience into the most comfortable parts of the Deep South.
At the center of this play is Truvy’s Salon, it’s titular proprietress (Austene Van) and her sidekick/assistant/surrogate daughter, Annelle (Adelin Phelps). Truvy’s closest friends, clients, and neighbors are Clairee (Amy Van Nostrand), Ouiser (Sally Wingert), M’Lynn (Melissa Maxwell) and her daughter Shelby (Nicole King). Across several years and through the seasons, these women explore and experience humor, heart, life, love, joy, tragedy and the bonds between women: mothers, daughters, and friends. The story clearly illustrates how women will give all of themselves to the people they love. Steel Magnolias will have you laughing till you cry, and crying while you laugh.
King’s Shelby is as independent and stubborn as she is glowing and sweet and wins over the audience immediately with her hopeful outlook. It is clear where Shelby gets her strength: her mother, M’Lynn. M’Lynn is as protective a mother as the world has ever seen. The emotional highs and lows of the play are mainly seen through M’Lynn and Shelby’s story. Given that Harling wrote Steel Magnolias in his late sister’s honor and based the characters on his mother and her friends, it is easy to see why these two women are so easy to love and identify with. Local showstopper Sally Wingert is delightful as Ouiser. Her comedic timing is as impeccable as ever, firing off one-liner after one-liner as the sassy and stubborn widower and local grump.
Truvy’s Salon is a safe space for the women of the parish to gather and be at peace. Every element of the production design seamlessly convey the feeling of sanctuary that Director Lisa Rothe sought to create in the salon. The scenic design by Narelle Sissons makes excellent use of a turntable to show us all four sides of the cunningly constructed backyard salon. The screened-in nature of the walls and the backdrop of the interior of a titular magnolia tree fully envelops the audience in a Louisiana neighborhood. The fine, intricate details of the interior of the set and props design give Truvy’s a cozy and warm sense of reality. Every scene change adds new lovely surprises that gives the salon a very lived-in feeling and there is never a dull moment on stage. At any given moment, every actor on stage has something to work on, play with, or read about so that the audience always has something new to watch.
Cat Tate Starmer’s lighting design adds to the sense of safety and warmth by making excellent use of combining practical fixtures and stage lighting. In a show that makes conscious references to music of the time, the sound design by Jane Shaw fills the air with familiar ‘80s hits and newly composed (by Shaw) tunes that reflect the southern atmosphere with the twang of a guitar and the bright singing of a violin.
It would not be an ‘80s period piece, nor would it be Steel Magnolias, without ‘80s fashion and hair. Costume designer Kara Harmon and Guthrie wigmaster Laura Stearns (in her last show at the Guthrie) worked together to perfectly represent the finest and most familiar of ‘80s women’s clothing and hairstyles. Truvy and Shelby stick out as two sides of fashion at the time. Truvy’s striking closet of silky, patterned, and shoulder-padded tops are a feast for the eye, while Shelby’s casual, younger look employs a generous use of denim and, of course, pink.
Textually the play requires Truvy and Annelle to constantly tend to the beauty of the other women. It is clear that both Austene Van and Adelin Phelps put in the time and effort to perfect the looks of the show. Stearns refers to the “hair-ography” as the carefully planned and executed “play-by-play” that was required for the actresses to pull off the salon experience while still living in the world and text of the play. The actresses and design team were 100% successful in their endeavors.