Review: Steel Magnolias at the Alliance

22 Oct

I had an opportunity to watch the final dress rehearsal of Steel Magnolias at the Alliance Theatre last night, gratis. Due to this fabulous and world-famous blog, you ask? Actually, one of my coworkers is friends with one of the publicity people over there. But no matter, I don’t turn down free theatrical events, especially ones with which I have personal history.

I played Shelby four years ago, right when I got pregnant with T (talk about life imitating art), so it’s a show about which I have definite opinions and feelings. I didn’t play her at an equity house though, much less one of the most well-renowned regional theatres in the nation. So I was expecting it to be light years better than your production.

And it was. In some respects.

The set, first of all, was the production’s crowning glory as far as I was concerned. My friend E and I got there early and sat in the second row so we had ample opportunity to scrutinize. Not only were there multiple rooms in the garage beauty shop, but the sinks had actual working plumbing and the giant bowl hair dryers really worked (or at least they plugged in and made noise, jury’s out on whether they actually dried hair).  Decorated to the hilt with period (are we calling the 80s period?) accessories and decorations, including a children’s area that was completely irrelevant to the action of the play other than as stage business, but still a realistic touch. But even this amply-budgeted extravaganza lacked perfection–as E pointed out, there were no magnolia blossoms in the giant tree projections carpeting the scrim. Fail, Alliance. Fail.

The pacing and energy stayed high and the show felt shorter than its actual running time. The few hiccups we noticed were handled smoothly and only made me more appreciative of the fact that we were enjoying live theatre. The sound design was a mixed bag (the radio bit was convincing but the gunshots were not), but the costumes were delightfully tacky and made me miss my grandmother something fierce.

There were moments, both of humor and poignancy, that were handled completely differently than they were in my iteration of the show. I was unable to determine whether it was an actor or director’s choice in those moments, which speaks to a great collaboration between the two. Different, of course, doesn’t necessarily imply better or worse. Varied interpretations of a playwright’s work are what keep a show–especially one done as often as this one–perennially interesting.

Every actor was strong and consistent, which is essential in a cast this small. But you guys, I have to tell you I was struck, I mean really struck, while watching these command performances by the fact that…they were not matchless. I’ve seen performances just as strong and consistent on the community theatre stage.

One of my actor friends tells of how during a recent gig, a techie asked what her job was on the set. When she answered that she was one of the actors he scoffed with barely concealed disdain, “oh. You’re talent.” Proving what multiple workshop leaders and acting instructors have told me over the years: Actors get most of the glory with audiences, but in the professional world they really are considered the bottom of the totem pole. Why? Because talent is easy to come by. Good actors are a dime a dozen.

We didn’t have a program since this was a rehearsal, but evidently over half the cast was recognizable from film and TV roles. These ladies were definitely professionals. E and I were particularly tickled that one of them was on Bones, one of our TV faves. And as I said, every one of them was convincing and didn’t miss a beat. But I can honestly say that I preferred at least a few of the portrayals in our production to this one.* I know I liked our Clairee better. I liked our Ouiser better too, although the two were played so differently it’s almost unfair to make a comparison. I started out enamored with their Annelle, but her extremely strong characterization wore me out towards the end, like gum you’ve been chewing on too long.

*The role of Shelby aside. I absolutely cannot make an objective comparison in a role that I’ve played without developing a split personality. However I will say that the Shelby in this show was a little one-note in terms of intonation. I think it was deliberate choice and one perhaps guided by the director and therefore can’t be considered a fault of the actress.

M’Lynn, the arguable heart of the play, was actually probably my least favorite. She was an elegant ice queen, and said more in her silences than in her words. She was a real glamourpuss onstage and off, you could tell. Her big outburst at the end was believable enough, but I didn’t find myself moved to tears. Maybe I’m just too familiar with the moment–God knows the lady next to me was having a complete break down, snot and all. She did a bang-up job for sure, but I felt her characterization lacked some essential warmth.

Which leads me to an overall observation/assessment: these women weren’t Southern. Of course I don’t really know where they all hail from, but I do know–from looking online–that they all have a huge list of credits in New York and LA, indicating many years spent in other climes. Aside from the depressing fact that none of local equity houses like to employ local talent, this show in particular benefits from some true GRITS.* Beyond the accents and the mannerisms (which I can’t fault), there really is a certain subtle, je n’ais se quai sheen on a person that genuinely came up in the South. And as most Southerners know, that’s a quality that is just really, really hard to emulate. I’m not sure any one of these ladies captured it utterly.

*I can’t believe I just invoked that acronym with sincerity, even though I am one. 

The ladies of Alliance’s Steel Magnolias

I also wasn’t entirely sold on the close-ness of the group. I certainly can’t say the camaraderie in our show was any more convincing–as a matter of fact, we weathered considerable drama offstage as well as on, and I was straight-up puky with morning sickness start to finish–but I felt like these were ladies who have been working closely with each other for a few weeks*, not ladies who have known each other all their lives.

*Although to be fair, you can and do get pretty close in those circumstances.

I think everyone who sees this show is going to thoroughly enjoy it, and I highly recommend you get tickets now because I suspect a sell-out. But it gives me some satisfaction to know that whatever special fairy dust was shaken over these ladies to give them the success they enjoy as professional actors, it didn’t involve any greater portion of talent than many of the dedicated actors I’ve seen working for free around this town. And that’s gratifying.

Steel Magnolias is on the Alliance Stage October 22 – November 9. For tickets and more information, visit alliancetheatre.org/steelmagnolias or call (404) 733-5000.

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