It's not often that both a play's director and the company's artistic director admit to not having read a longstanding and popular script until it was on the table for a Guthrie Theater production, but artistic director Joseph Haj opens his program note with what he terms a "confession."
"Before Steel Magnolias surfaced in our season planning discussions, I had never read the play, seen the play or watched the famed 1989 film." What's more, adds Haj, "our esteemed director Lisa Rothe and several members of our creative team were just as unfamiliar."
Robert Harling's 1987 play isn't a prestige property in American theater. It's more like the comfort food discussed by its characters, all the more so now that it's become line-by-line familiar to generations of fans who've grown up with the movie.
That film has such iconic status — with its cast including Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, and Sally Field — that Haj may have been at pains to assure theatergoers that the Guthrie didn't feel beholden to the well-worn VHS tapes that enthusiastic ticket-buyers may hold close to their hearts.
Indeed, some attendees may be surprised to learn that Harling's story was a play before it was a screenplay. To that end, the Guthrie's program also includes a comparison of the two, including the reproduction of a theatrical poster with a Rex Reed quote describing Steel Magnolias as "a hilarious, zonked-out Truman Capote comedy for the '80s!"
Despite its timeless themes, that Reagan-era setting is crucial context for Steel Magnolias, both because of the script's dated references and because it's important to understand what generations these six women represent. Anyone who remembers '80s fashion — not just what Whitney Houston wore, but what small-town moms and grandmas wore — will give a chef's kiss to the impeccable creations of costume designer Kara Harmon and the team crafting the hairstyles that keep bringing these characters back to Truvy's salon.
Austene Van plays a Truvy who's just as warm and down-to-earth as you'd hope for this pillar of the community. (Parton, who played the role onscreen, makes a sort of cameo via the cover of a magazine one character picks up to peruse.) Scenic designer Narelle Sissons has created Truvy's cozy establishment with screens that showcase the changing seasons, depicted via a telltale tree projected behind the salon. The cabin-like effect will resonate with Minnesotans who agree with Rothe that Harling's supportive scenario isn't unique to the South.
It's fitting that Steel Magnolias is being newly appraised by gatekeepers like those at the Guthrie and on Broadway, where the play finally debuted in 2005. Harling's structure may be tidy, but it's not pat, and he tapped a seemingly infinite well of wisecracks that his sharply-defined characters swap as their surface bickering belies a profoundly nurturing love in the face of feckless men (kept, wisely, offstage) and implacable fate.
Rothe's ensemble of actors delight in the rich quips and stand resolute through the despair. Sally Wingert brings down the house as the cranky Ouiser, nicely paired with Amy Van Nostrand as her frenemy Clairee; and Melissa Maxwell's M'Lynn remains movingly stoic as her daughter Shelby faces life-threatening health challenges.
It's the younger cast members who are most revelatory, though. Nicole King is a stylish and confident Shelby, glowing with a charisma that she doesn't always see reflected back when she looks in her new husband's eyes. The production is also a wonderfully welcome Guthrie debut for Adelin Phelps; finally, Big Blue audience members can see the depth and precision that fans of companies like Transatlantic Love Affair have long appreciated.
When the shy Annelle finally throws her first affectionate barb, Phelps's pitch-perfect expression of bashful pride inspires grins and cheers all the way to the back of the house. As Truvy says in one of the play's most resonant lines, "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion."