In the good ol’ days of my youth, no one had their hair cut by a stylist at a unisex salon. Rather, men went to the barber shop, while women had weekly appointments at the local beauty parlor with their favorite hairdresser. What went on there we men never knew, but hours after their visits our mothers, older sisters and neighbors would return looking gorgeous and up-to-date on all the neighborhood gossip.
Their secret was revealed when playwright Robert Harling wrote “Steel Magnolias” as a way of sorting through his emotions following the death of his sister and best friend Susan from diabetes. The genteel comedy/drama, set inside Truvy’s Beauty Parlor beginning in June 1986, focuses on a handful of women in a small town in northwest Louisiana whose friendship and love for one another are built, strengthened and reinforced by their interactions at the beauty shop. What took so long for a women-focused theater company to produce this all-woman play I don’t know, but the production now onstage courtesy of Two Muses Theatre is a stylish cut and polished to near-glossy perfection.
It’s an atypical morning inside Truvy’s Beauty Parlor. It’s Shelby’s wedding day, and the bride (Liz Jaffe) arrives to have her hair styled – followed in short order by her mother M’lynn (Barbie Weisserman) and a handful of townswomen, all of whom are longtime friends and customers of the shop. Although their attention is focused primarily on the bride, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to meander into other territory – and we learn much about the women’s families, their shared histories, and the town they live in. New to the mix, though, is the mysterious Annelle (Emily Caffery), a shy young woman who moved to town recently and was hired that morning by Truvy (Brenda Lane) to work in her shop.
Suddenly and without warning, Shelby falls into diabetic shock while having her hair worked on. (She’s a Type 1 diabetic.) It’s then revealed that Shelby’s doctor has warned her not to have children because of the stress pregnancy would inflict upon her body. The three scenes that follow jump through time and explore both Shelby’s life journey and the women at Truvy’s Beauty Parlor whose lives are also changing.
Initially staged off-Broadway in 1987, “Steel Magnolias” explores the tight bonds shared by a group of women who have traveled alongside one another through their good times and their bad. Even an occasional dustup does nothing to keep these strong women from helping and supporting each other when trouble comes calling.
And that’s where director Nancy Kammer’s production especially shines: Much attention has been paid to the development of each character and how one relates to every other – and from the moment the show begins, the camaraderie and love these six characters share is apparent and believable. Their banter is easy and familiar; the looks and touches are sincere and revealing. And it all builds to a climactic fourth scene that left the opening night audience totally quiet and fully engaged on the action unfolding before them.
For me, what stands out are the little things Kammer and her cast accomplished through hard work and diligence. One thing in particular I watched closely – and was thoroughly impressed by – was Kammer’s choice to have the beauty chair downstage center, with the audience serving as the mirror. With such a distraction before them, it would be easy for Lane’s focus – and the focus of anyone sitting in her chair – to wander throughout the audience. But Lane – who, with the perfect hairstyle and costumes by Weisserman, looks like she came directly from Central Casting – never waivers; her eyes were totally fixated on SOMETHING, which perfectly created the illusion that her full attention was on her client’s reflection at all times and nothing else. (With several theatergoers sitting directly in front of her, shifting in their seats, coughing and doing who-knows-what else, I’m sure that was tough to pull off!)
Equally impressive is the aforementioned final scene in which five sets of eyes become glued on Weisserman. It’s the play’s most intense moment, and none of the five broke their concentration and stole attention from where it needed to be; instead, the emotions flowing from all six actresses on opening night were raw and palpable. And Weisserman’s performance was heartbreaking.
Overall, Kammer and her ensemble – which also includes Diane Hill as Clairee and Margaret Gilkes as Ouiser – all do fine work, especially showing the passage of time on their characters, a task that requires more than simple costume changes and make-up adjustments. (Caffery’s growth over the three-year period isn’t as pronounced as it could be, however, based on what we learn from the dialogue.) Most, however, need to pay better attention to their Southern accents, which faded in and out quite often, especially later in the opening night performance.
Not only does Two Muses provide roles for women actors, much of the technical work for “Steel Magnolias” was performed by women as well, including lights by Lucy Meyo and stage management by Emily Pierce. One of the few guys involved, Bill Mandt, designed the colorful set that looked very much like the beauty shop my mother patronized for many years in the 1970s and ’80s. (Was the wallpaper universal in such places, I wonder?)
A line early in the performance pretty much sums up Two Muses’ latest production. “It takes some effort to look like this,” Truvy says of her colorful outfit and hair. And it’s a sentiment that Kammer and company took quite seriously – and it shows in this night of entertaining and engaging theater (for men and women alike).
Two Muses Theatre at Barnes and Noble Booksellers, 6800 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield. Friday-Sunday through April 28. $15-18 in advance; $2 more at the door. 2 hours, 10 minutes. 248-850-9919. http://www.twomusestheatre.org