"It's slow. Slow but cute." Thank you ma'am, that was perfectly stated at the intermission of "Steel Magnolias" on Saturday night at the Old Log Theater. It did take a while for the Robert Harling play to stand up and say something. Not to jump ahead, but R. Kent Knutson's production clicks with more natural rhythm in the second act and by the curtain, genuine emotion lingers in the air.
Harling wrote this Southern-friend melodrama as a cri de coeur after his sister died from complications of diabetes. He set that tragedy at the center of a group of women who gather at Truvy's beauty shop in a Louisiana town large enough to have its own radio station and privileged classes, but small enough to provoke the occasional desire to escape.
Set designer Erik Paulson has built a bright, well-lit and comfortable beauty shop, where Truvy (Greta Grosch) attends to her regular clientele. Grosch, best known in these parts for her work in "Church Basement Ladies," trades her farmwife glasses and apron for a poofy bouffant of silvery hair and a bit of Paula Deen in her sashay.
On the day the play opens, Truvy has hired Annelle (Lisa Bark) because soon the beauty shop will be atwitter with activity. Shelby (Heidi Fellner), daughter of M'Lynn (Jody Briskey), is getting dolled up for her wedding. Clairee (Michelle Myers Berg) and Ouiser (Shelli Place) add to the conversation, which only gets above the level of everyday routine when Shelby goes into hypoglycemic shock.
The second act spins out the real stakes of Harling's drama — which again center on Shelby's health — and these women help each other cope with hard times.
But back to that "slow but cute" remark. Southern culture drawls along at its own pace and Knutson has not quite found the spark and energy needed to propel the story. Ironically, this is the result of more action, not less. Characters are constantly getting up from their seats, walking up and delivering a line and then retreating to the couch or chair. Better choices on what's urgent and what's not would build energy.
Though this is Truvy's place, Grosch understands she is not to be the focus of the play. That falls to Shelby, whom Fellner doesn't fully animate even if she has the perfect look. Briskey bears herself well as M'Lynn, though she often conveys a stiffness. Berg's voice and attitude as Clairee — a woman as close to royalty as this town will find — is spot on. However, her performance often feels mannered in gesture and movement. As Annelle, a young woman from the school of hard knocks, Bark keeps a chirpy optimism and a sense of real charm.
Harling writes funny lines and he writes true emotions that are worth seeing and feeling. "Steel Magnolias" is best when it zings with that honest and urgent flow of life. The play's enemy is a potential lacquer of sentiment. Knutson keeps it honest, evidenced by sniffles throughout the audience, but the show sags at times under its own inertia.