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“This is women’s territory,” someone says near the top of Robert Harling’s 1987 tearjerker Steel Magnolias, marking the Louisiana beauty salon where the play is set as a sanctuary where those who wear their reproductive organs on the outside dare not tread.
Though written by a man—reportedly to channel his grief over his sister’s death—and directed for the Keegan Theatre by Producing Artistic Director Mark A. Rhea, who’s also in fact a man, the play, too, is women’s territory, in a reductive way that some women, including one or two to whom I mentioned I’d be seeing it, find off-putting. (Hey, I wouldn’t like the suggestion that men are fairly represented by the guys in Glengarry Glen Ross, either.) These half-dozen magnolias hang out in a beauty parlor, getting their hair and nails did, gossiping, complaining about the men who either ignore them or have died on them or whom they’re about to marry.
Laura Herren is quite charming as Shelby, the girl in the last fix. She also suffers from what my companion at the show waggishly dubbed “Chekhov’s diabetes,” after the phrase “Chekhov’s gun,” a compression of the dramatist’s principle that says you don’t point a piece of information at a story unless you’re prepared to fire it. Or something like that.
So Shelby’s momma—played convincingly, it must be said, by Herren’s real-life mom, Sheri S. Herren—has to spend a lot of time yelling at her to drink juice and eat mints, which, life-threatening blood-glucose levels be damned, she just does not want to do because she’s independent and sassy! Why else would she demand that her wedding-reception hall be decorated in 19 shades of pink?
There’s a curious variety of accents on display in this show about six women who’ve lived their entire lives in the same small, fictional town. My favorite belongs to Linda High, uproarious as Ousier, the brash biddy emboldened by her years to say whatever she wants. “I’m am not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!” she declaims. You can almost see Cathy’s giant sweat bullets of exasperation leaping from her forehead. (You know: Cathy! The comic strip? From the newspa—yeah, forget it.)
Larissa Gallagher and Brianna Letourneau, as the proprietor of Truvy’s Beauty Salon and her employee, perform a lot of different hair-enlarging operations during their scenes, operating on their castmates with rollers and irons and other implements whose names a gentile can only guess. Trena Weiss-Null’s set certainly looks like a functioning salon.
The hair-curling, nail-painting action moves from 1987 to 1989, a fact the production reminds us of by playing era-appropriate U2, Bruce Springsteen, and, um, Richard Marx, between and beneath scenes. The second scene, set at Christmastime, is introduced by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”—which manages to stand out as bloated and bone-headed even among 1980s charity singles. “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime/The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life,” goes the chorus. It’s possible to feel moved and perhaps even comforted by this song, even while understanding how dumb it is.
You will like this, if this is the sort of thing that you like.