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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 8.19.10

 

Big Hair, Big Emotions

Steel Magnolias at the Cottage Theatre

by Anna Grace

“There’s no such thing as natural beauty,” salon owner Truvy (Nikki Pagniano) proudly proclaims, just before her first customers arrive.

Shelby (Mandy Rose) and her mother M’Lynn (Ellen Chace) . Photo courtesy of the Cottage Theatre.

It is the height of the 80’s in Chinquapin, Louisiana. Big hair and big accessories are alive and well, and both serve as the appropriate backdrop to the dramas, ranging from the trivial to the tremendous, of a group of small town women.

The play was written in 1987 by Robert Harling out of grief following the death of his younger sister, who had Type 1 diabetes. The tough and genteel, down to earth while made up within an inch of their lives, the idealized women of the script speak to Harling’s best memories of his Louisiana upbringing. The play is a beautiful farewell to his sister. 

Having taken a hiatus from stage directing to pursue almost every other aspect of production (actor, reviewer and television newsman are just a few of his titles), Alan Beck returns to the director’s chair with this tear-jerking classic. It’s a delight to welcome an experienced artist into our local pool of directors, even as Beck still seems to be shaking off the dust a little. Relying too heavily on the strengths of the script, Beck’s direction highlighted the humorous writing but wasn’t as masterful with the relational subtext. I look forward to seeing him wield a heavier hand in the future.

Beck put together a talented ensemble of women who could have used just another week to rehearse. I couldn’t pinpoint whose fault the line flubs were, but there were sufficient moments of uncertainty to throw off the flow of entire scenes and make it difficult for the women to fully commit to their characters. These women are all talented actors who came through with real emotion from time to time, but over all the show did not run as smoothly as it should have with such an experienced cast. The heart was there and the talent was there; the production just needed more time to steep.

Ultimately, the goal of a Steel Magnolias production is to trigger the emotion of “laughter through tears.” The play is very funny, and the audience was in tears at the final scene. I enjoyed being a part of Truvy’s Beauty Salon for an evening, and as this production develops and tightens up, I think others will as well.

Steel Magnolias continues through Aug. 29 at the Cottage Theatre. Tix at cottagetheatre.org or 541-942-8001.