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Curtain Calls

By |2005-10-20T09:00:00-04:00October 20th, 2005|Entertainment|
Review: ‘Steel Magnolias’
Six top actresses, six excellent performances

At the start of every season I’m often asked the following question: “Which shows are you looking forward to most this year?” There’s never an easy answer to that, since pretty much every theater in town has at least one or two productions on their schedule that pique my curiosity. So I usually respond with either a non-committal reply or ramble off a laundry list of shows that will be forgotten minutes after the conversation is over.
But not this year.
For once I learned who was starring in Meadow Brook Theatre’s opening production of “Steel Magnolias,” I knew immediately what my “must see” show of the fall season was going to be.
And the opening night performance this past Saturday night surpassed even my unusually high expectations!
“Steel Magnolias” – as probably most everyone knows, thanks to the movie starring Dolly Parton and Sally Field – is a warm-hearted comedy about a beauty parlor in the small town of Chinquapin, Louisiana where the townswomen gather to gossip, kvetch, trade recipes and offer support when times get tough. Despite its cardboard-thin plot, playwright Robert Harling sprinkles his slice-of-life script with plenty of humor and pathos, and his half-dozen characters – while cut from the same Southern cloth – are as different from one another as night and day.
Which, interestingly enough, has led to several dreadful productions of “Steel Magnolias” over the years. For the temptation is great to create caricatures on stage rather than unique and fully developed characters. And while such an approach might result in plenty of laughs, the end product is one with little or no soul.
Director David Regal – with his keen eye for casting – doesn’t let that happen, however. Instead, he’s assembled a “dream team” of six local actresses who skillfully know how far to push their characters and when to pull them back. And because of the strong chemistry that exists among them, it’s easy to believe that what we’re watching are six friends living their lives before our eyes and not a group of actresses simply collecting their paychecks.
With such a strong ensemble, it’s impossible to single out any particular actress or performance. So kudos to Sandra Birch (Truvy), Mary Wright Bremer (Ouiser), Laurie Logan (Clairee), Stephanie Nichols (M’Lynn) and Roxanne Wellington (Shelby) for their captivating performances. And the icing on the cake is the return to the stage of Kate Peckham (Annelle) after spending so much time behind it as a director!
Regal’s excellent pacing keeps the story briskly moving along with nary a dull spot to be found. And Vince Mountain’s set couldn’t be better.
“Steel Magnolias” Staged Wed.-Sun. at Meadow Brook Theatre, on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester, through Nov. 6. Tickets: $20-$36. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com
The Bottom Line: What do you get when you cast six of the area’s top actresses in the same show? Find out in “Steel Magnolias”!

Review: ‘The Seagull’
New, old, love and sadness abound in classic Chekhov comedy

Generally speaking, most plays that portend to be comedies don’t end with the suicide of its protagonist. Such works are usually classified as tragedies. But while catching up on my reading recently I stumbled upon a quote that perfectly sums up Anton Chekhov’s play, “The Seagull,” that opened last week at Ann Arbor’s Blackbird Theatre. Discussing the celebrated playwright’s work, Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov said, “Chekhov’s books are sad books for humorous people; that is, only a reader with a sense of humor can really appreciate their sadness.”
That’s especially true with “The Seagull.” For what strikes me most about Barton Bund’s adaptation of Chekhov’s work is the profound sadness that resonates throughout the words and actions of the play’s 11 characters – despite “all this love” that’s in the air.
Or maybe it’s BECAUSE of all that love – since much of it is illicit, false or conditional.
Bund’s “Helpful Guide” in the play’s program – thank you, Bart, it truly is helpful! -describes the characters’ romantic entanglements: Masha, the daughter of Shamraev (the estate manager) and Polina (his wife), secretly loves Konstantin, a struggling playwright and son of acclaimed actress Arkadina, but she settles for Medvedenko, a boring schoolteacher. Konstantin loves Nina, a young actress who spurns him for celebrated author Trigorin, Arkadina’s lover. Meanwhile, Polina is having an affair with Dorn, the doctor. And Sorin, Arkadina’s brother and owner of the estate, regrets never having married.
To put it bluntly, no one in the bunch is happy. (Except -maybe – Shamraev, who seems totally oblivious to the raging hormones swirling around him.)
Konstantin, especially, is a joyless fellow. Already low on self esteem because of his condescending mother, Konstantin is struggling to become a playwright. He’s dissatisfied with the traditional works of theater, however, so he desires to create a new theatrical form. The problem, though, is that his work is not very good. And when his mother upstages a performance of his premier effort, Konstantin’s funk only worsens.
Which leads to – well, I’ve already given away the ending. But nonetheless, how the story gets there is a fascinating look at the dark side of human nature.
To faithfully adapt a Russian playwright’s classic work cannot be easy, but Bund’s script is quite good. What might disconcert some, however, is Bund’s and director Joseph Zettelmaier’s attempt at mixing elements of 19th century Russia with 21st century America. Masha, for example, is played as a Goth girl – which makes excellent sense, actually – whereas Shamraev and Polina could easily pass for farmhands in Kiev. However, I suspect Chekhov would be pleased to see laptop computers and cell phones in his work. After all, one of its themes is the struggle between the old and the new, an undercurrent that Bund and Zettlemaier subtly mine for all its worth.
“The Seagull” Staged Thu.-Sat. by BlackBag productions at the Blackbird Theatre, 1600 Pauline, Ann Arbor, through Oct. 29. Tickets: $18. 734-332-3848. http://www.blackbirdtheatre.net
The Bottom Line: A thoughtful, new adaptation of a classic work with lots of dialogue and little action that occasionally needs a little “oomph” to hold the audience’s attention.

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