Review: Steel Magnolias (Saint Sebastian Players)

     
     

Warmth, camaraderie dominate Steel Magnolias

     
     

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Saint Sebastian Players presents
  
Steel Magnolias
   
Written by Robert Harling
Directed by Steven Walanka
at
St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Something happens once one enters Saint Sebastian Players’ theater space at St. Bonaventure Church. First, there’s the sign over the stairs on the way down—“The best theatre in a basement in the universe.” Then, there’s the palpable hominess, the obvious, open responsiveness transmitted between audience and cast. Clearly, SSP is a theater company that has fostered a strong, grounded sense of community over its 30-year run. That they would choose to produce Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias fits their M.O. to a tee. Friendship and community that sees people through the rhythms of the years probably resonates more here in this space than any other in town and Chicago is simply full to the brim with small theaters that offer an intimate experience. But something about the gentle care Steven Walanka’s direction takes with each scene between the women of Truvy’s (Tricia Rogers) hair salon suggests the intimacy of family–or people who know and accept you better than family.

Steel Magnolias - Saint Sebastian Players 034Those ladies who show up to Truvy’s are legendary: Annelle (Kaitlyn Whitebread), nervous, naïve and on the run from her criminal husband; Clairee (Deborah Rodkin), widowed and searching for a life beyond being the mayor’s wife; Shelby (Margaret Scrantom), always pushing herself past the limitations of diabetes; M’Lynn (Jill Chukerman Test), her stoutly pragmatic mother; and Ouiser (Kate O’Connor), cantankerous, idiosyncratic and unstoppable. Saint Sebastian’s cast runs the risk of having every minute of their performance gauged against the 1989 movie. Yet, they succeed in creating a genuine world of their own.

Walanka’s direction starts each scene at a comfortable, neighborly pace, which allows his actors to dip into quiet, confidential moments with each other, before building to surprise or confrontation. For the most part, the cast follows the comedy’s natural rhythms organically. The testy, if loving, relationship between Shelby and her mother, M’lynn, stretches out over years of bright hope for Shelby’s future with her new husband to dire health consequences stemming from choosing to bear a child against the advice of doctors. In the meantime, Chairee and Ouiser gamely get on each other’s nerves and Annelle goes from scared runaway to party girl to born again Christian. It’s capable, sassy Truvy that provides the safe, gossipy space that is their home away from home.

     
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That’s not to say that SSP’s production is perfect. Opening night found a couple of actors starting cold and only warming to their parts by the second scene. Also, while a low-key approach to building relationships between these characters definitely has its pay-offs, there’s equally the danger of some scenes’ moments dragging. But, all in all, this cast projects the essence of camaraderie between women. Furthermore, Scrantom brings the right blend of independence and vulnerability distinctive to Shelby, while Chukerman Test brings her role as M’lynn home with simple and convincing interpretation of her frustration and rage over Shelby’s death, as well as her endurance. Overall, the production communicates the vitality of these characters and they communicate it to an audience that fully, wisely, appreciates its substance, as well as the laughter.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Photos by OCA Photography

        
       

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REVIEW: Steel Magnolias (Hubris Productions)

Hubris production could use a touch-up

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Hubris Productions present
  
Steel Magnolias
   
Written by Robert Harling
Directed by
Lavina Jadhwani
At
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
Through July 31  | 
tickets: $25  | more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

steel magnolias_005The 1989 film version of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias is one of the definitive chick flicks of all time: empowering, hilarious, emotionally devastating, and featuring one of the best female ensembles ever assembled on screen. Harling’s characters are southern women bursting at the seams with charisma, and they require the  larger-than-life personalities of a Dolly Parton or Shirley Maclaine to make their struggles spectacular. Directed by Lavina Jadhwani, the actors of Hubris’s Steel Magnolias lack the energy that makes these characters enthralling, resulting in a plodding production that never makes it to the emotional heights that the script has become known for.

Harling’s play depicts the key moments of diabetic Shelby’s (Sara Pavlak) adulthood – her wedding, pregnancy, motherhood, etc. – and how these events affect her mother M’Lynn (Stephanie Wooten-Austin) and other women of Chinquapin, Louisiana: salon owner Truvy (Calidonia Olivares), sardonic widow Clairee (Sharon Roseri), eccentric curmudgeon Ouiser (Lorraine Freund), and new girl Annelle (Jessica Maynard). In Truvy’s salon, these six women argue about wedding colors, gossip about local ladies, and experience the occasional breakdown in an environment free of testosterone. On paper, the generations-spanning assortment of personalities should be quite entertaining, but the potential of the characters isn’t reached by the ensemble.

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From the very opening scene it is obvious that Steel Magnolias needs a lot of fine-tuning: the actors stumble over lines, the comedy revolves too heavily on gags (Annelle drops things! A lot!), and Truvy’s hair is way too flat. That last one is just mind-boggling, as big hair should be at the top of any designer’s checklist for this show. As the production continues, the lack of chemistry between the actors makes it apparent that there is still much character work to be done, starting with a much needed jolt of electricity to the dull performances.

   
   
Rating:★★
   
   

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