'Steel Magnolias'

"Steel Magnolias" by Robert Harling is a play carefully crafted to make you laugh a lot, cry a little and leave the theater with warm feelings for the enduring bonds of friendship. In the capable hands of director Neale Donald Walsch, this Randall Theatre Company production delivers on all levels.

With its powerful cast and meticulous production detail, "Steel Magnolias" is a lovely way to spend a summer evening. It's sort of sweet and frothy like a syllabub and as unexpectedly bracing as a mint julep.

The entirety of "Steel Magnolias" takes place in Truvy's Beauty Parlor in Nachitoches, La., over a period of two years. We are party to the life-changing events — some happy, some heart-breaking — among six close women friends. Truvy prides herself on the quality of her work and her clientele certainly come from the rich folk in this small Southern town.

Scenic designer Nic Walsch has fashioned an onstage salon authentic to the last detail — work stations, a shampoo basin, a manicurist table, shelving and a comfortable couch. It is homemade but fully professional — just like Truvy herself.

The women of "Steel Magnolias" gossip incessantly about the men in their lives, but no man ever dares to make an appearance into the inner sanctum of that beauty parlor. Truvy and her ladies are economically independent and seem to find men a charming, if occasionally boorish, accessory — a necessary adjunct to a good pair of earrings or a complementary scarf.

As the play opens, Truvy (Annie Sims) is auditioning an awkward young woman, Annelle (Katie Fisher), for the available job in the salon. When Truvy tries to learn more about Annelle, the girl is evasive. Truvy, however, likes her and her work and hires her on the spot — it's going to be a busy morning and Truvy needs all the help she can get.

Shelby Eatenton (Chloé Rosenthal) is getting married. While Shelby may define herself by the incessant palette of pinks in her wardrobe, she is no airhead. Although she is about to marry a well-to-do good ol' boy lawyer, she plans to continue working as a neo-natal nurse. She is also determined to have children in spite of a serious diabetic condition that seems to preclude pregnancy.

Her mother, M'Lynn (Judith Rosen) constantly tries and invariably fails to control her daughter's life. M'Lynn and Shelby are the real protagonists of this story. It would have been easy for Rosenthal to fall into a caricature of the spoiled, imperious Southern belle and it is to her credit — as well as Walsch's deft direction — that our respect for Shelby grows throughout the play. Equally, Rosen's portrayal could have veered from the humorously bossy to bereft without giving us a sense of the character's depth and maturity. Rosen nails this complex role and she manages to do so while staying impeccably in her character's Southern accent.

Walsch thought of Sims, an old friend from Tennessee, to play Truvy. (Sims is an award-winning country western musician and her recorded songs provide the music prior to curtain and during intermission.) Sims seems to effortlessly inhabit the role, holding together the other characters' story lines while subtly giving us telling glimpses of the salon owner's personal heartache.

Veteran Rogue Valley actor Brandy Carson plays the perpetually grouchy Ouiser. ("There's nothing wrong with me. I've just been in a bad mood for the last 40 years.") Carson does the sarcastic outrage very well but she also shows us Ouiser's underlying diffidence and loneliness.

Dee Maaske, a 20-year company member at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, plays Clairee. Over the course of the play, the character goes from a hesitant bereaved widow to cheerful and powerful local radio station owner to a confident world traveler. Maaske's portrayal is consistently beautifully nuanced — low-key yet authoritative.

The character of Annelle is sort of "Steel Magnolia's" running joke. She starts out as a frightened waif, moves to a kitsch-y member of the salon's supportive "family" and winds up as a caricature of the proselytizing born-again Christian. It would have been easy to just let Annelle become a reliable punchline but Walsch and newcomer Fisher give us the character's essential generosity and honesty.

"Steel Magnolias" plays at Randall Theatre, 10 E. Third Street (corner of Front Street) in Medford through Aug. 11. Curtain is at 7 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays with Sunday matinees at 1 p.m. Reserved seat tickets are $12 with remaining performance tickets available 30 minutes before show time on a "pay what you want" basis. Tickets can be purchased online at www.randalltheatre.com or by calling 541-832-3258.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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