About the only thing that’s missing from Truvy’s small-town Louisiana salon in “Steel Magnolias” is wine — spirits to complement the laughter and soothe the heartbreak.
Otherwise, the Robert Harling play, which opened Friday in director Lisa Rothe’s sparklingly entertaining production at the Guthrie Theater, is the total package. This must-see show offers an enjoyable evening of theater — one that opens you up with crackling humor before going in for the emotional kill.
Yes, there will be tears. But it’s all very satisfying.
Written in 1987 first as a play, “Steel Magnolias” is best known from director Herbert Ross’ star-studded 1989 film whose headliners included Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Julia Roberts and Daryl Hannah.
Rothe’s cast at the Guthrie doesn’t have — or need — such star power. The six-member acting company has flawless craft and impeccable timing as they give us a window into the lives of a cross-section of women for whom the salon is work, respite and sanctuary.
Regulars such as widow Clairee (Amy Van Nostrand), therapist M’Lynn (Melissa Maxwell) and divorced curmudgeon Ouiser (Sally Wingert) traipse in to escape the world and trade recipes, advice and gossip. Their repartee helps them develop bonds that sustain them through difficult times. One heartbreak comes with M’Lynn’s daughter, Shelby (Nicole King), a diabetic bride-to-be whose doctor has advised her against having children.
But it’s been hard enough for Shelby to get out from under her mother’s thumb. She’ll make her own decisions, thank you, even if it threatens her life.
Rothe heads an excellent all-female creative team, including costume designer Kara Harmon, lighting designer Cat Tate Starmer and sound designer Jane Shaw, whose music selections help to regulate the heartbeat of the show. The action takes place on scenic designer Narelle Sissons’ rotating salon, which is set against the backdrop of a huge tree (the name of the fictional town where everything takes place is Chinquapin, La., a name related to several plants).
The director has orchestrated an inclusive production for the 21st century, including Austene Van, a veteran Penumbra Theatre performer, playing salon owner Truvy. Van is solid in an acting ensemble that delivers with relish.
Wingert’s Ouiser tells M’Lynn, who wants her to come in for some therapy: “I’m not crazy. I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years.”
Van Nostrand’s Clairee is gleeful when she turns a phrase: “As somebody once said, if you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me.”
King is buttery as Shelby, endearing herself with her charm and light.
Maxwell lets us see into M’Lynn’s ways and worries, taking the edge off a therapist character who seemingly gives her daughter a reason to need therapy.
But the show stealer has to be Adelin Phelps, who plays Annelle, Truvy’s newest stylist who is running away from something. Annelle has as broad a journey as Shelby, and Phelps is sure-handed as she goes from shyness to strength.
“Magnolias” is about community and kinship. The women of the salon find the support, challenge and community in each other that other people find in sororities, churches and secret societies. They get to let off steam in a setting blissfully away from men.
That is not to say that men are absent from the play, even though they are never onstage, save for a stagehand whose presence makes a sly statement. The phlegmatic, otherworldly influence of men is felt literally every time a gunshot goes off and jolts the women in the salon.
But this is a show that everyone should see, including men. “Magnolias” takes a viewer inside a place where women are themselves, empowered, witty and free. It’s a period piece, yes, with big hair and all, but it resonates in this moment in 21st-century America.