In every small town -- especially fictional ones -- there always seems to be a place where people can gather to relax and be themselves. In Chinquapin, Louisiana, it's the hair salon Truvy's Beauty Spot.
This is the setting for Robert Harling's sentimental comedy-drama “Steel Magnolias”, which premiered off-Broadway in 1987. A star-studded and widely beloved film version followed in 1989.
Everything about Santa Maria Civic Theatre's version of Truvy's feels appropriately 1980s -- from the bright pink and yellow walls, to the old-time hair dryer chairs, to the curvy cursive font on the sign. (Set construction by Joe Brown).
Owner Truvy Jones (Heather Smith) shows new hire Annelle Dupuy (Chelsea Garcia) the ropes, and introduces her to some of the regular patrons. It's a big day for the salon, as everyone is preparing for the wedding of local girl Shelby Eatenton (Eden Bailey). We listen in on their conversation, as small talk and gossip gradually gives way to revelations about their lives. Truvy is coming to terms with her kids leaving the nest. Clairee Belcher (Dixie Arthur) was used to being the “First Lady of Chinquapin” -- her late husband was the mayor. Now, she's looking for something new in her life. Tensions arise between young bride-to-be Shelby and her mother M'Lynn (Irene Dahmen). Their bickering over hairstyles and wedding decorations hints at a deeper conflict. Annelle is tight-lipped about her backstory, but begins to loosen up in the parlor's welcoming atmosphere.
The warmth of the show begins with Smith's performance as Truvy. This is the kind of boss we'd all like to have.
Annelle is especially pivotal in the opening scene, as we share her outsider's perspective on the eccentric townsfolk. In the role, Garcia bursts with nervous energy, jumping out of her skin out over various odd events that are commonplace to the regulars. She also has a sweetness that makes us root for her to pull through.
Both actresses are adept at delivering dialogue while teasing, rolling and doing various other things to their fellow performers' hair.
There's a bit of a “Golden Girls” feel to the comedic side of the show. (The '80s décor may have something to do with that impression). The ladies humorously snipe at one another, but always with affection. Arthur's Clairee, in particular, has a talent for breaking the tension with humor at just the right moment. And the most sharp-tongued of all is the Eatentons' neighbor, Ouiser Boudreaux. (If this were “Golden Girls,” she'd be Sofia). Sharon Samples holds nothing back playing this lovably cantankerous character.
“I'm not crazy,” Ouiser explains. “I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!”
Even though these six very different people are divided by things like age and religious views, they become a close-knit group. With each new scene, time skips forward, and we quickly find that a lot has changed in everyone's lives over the intervening months.
The drama comes to center on the relationship between M'Lynn and Shelby. This part of the story is highly personal to the playwright, who based the character of Shelby on his late sister.
Shelby has Type 1 diabetes, and at one point, falls into a hypoglycemic state. The tone of the scene very quickly shifts from lighthearted to serious, a change given dramatic weight by Bailey, and the other performers' reaction to her.
Bailey brings out Shelby's strong sense of determination to live life on her own terms.
“I'd rather have 30 minutes of wonderful,” she explains, “than a lifetime of nothing special.” Yet we can also feel the intense concern M'Lynn has for her daughter's well-being, just by the way Dahmen looks at her.
This material could potentially come off as soppy if mishandled. Luckily, seasoned SMCT director Catherine Brown has delivered a production with heartfelt emotion.
Truvy mentions that “laughter through tears” is her favorite emotion, which means she would probably like this play. If you're the type that cries at the theater, you may want to bring a few tissues.