Review: 'Steel Magnolias' cast understands true meaning of ensemble acting

01:43 PM, May 20, 2013

From left, Cara D'Emanuele, Vicki Casarett, Dawn M. Sargent, Alexa Scott and Kaitlin Meleski in Blackfriars Theatre's Steel Magnolias. (DAN HOWELL//Photo provided by Blackfriars)/


Written By Leah Stacy

If you go

What:
Steel Magnolias
When: Through June 2, with shows this week at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday.
Where: Blackfriars Theatre, 795 E. Main St.
Cost: $28.50 to $33.50.
Tickets: bftix.org or (585) 454-1260.

If hair dryers and curling irons could talk, they’d have the most scandalous, heartbreaking, shocking stories to recount. Tales of post-breakup haircuts, color jobs to cover inaugural gray hairs and updos given to nervous brides.

The stories would be a little something like Steel Magnolias, the Southern comedy that’s been running in theaters across the country since it debuted as a play in 1987 and on film in 1989. It runs at Blackfriars Theatre through June 2.

When Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias, he was writing through the grief of losing his sister, Susan Harling Robinson. Part of her story is reflected here, but what’s stronger is the essence of Southern pride, larger-than-life 1980s hair and an intimate look at six women experiencing life together.

Clairee, Ouiser (that’s pronounced Wee-zer), Annelle, Truvy, M’Lynn and her daughter, Shelby, are ordinary women who come together in Truvy’s Beauty Parlor on the morning of Shelby’s wedding day to have their hair done and gossip about the Louisiana locals.

The rest of the play takes place on days plucked from the next few years, entirely inside the small town beauty parlor. Set designer (and Blackfriars artistic director) John Haldoupis has expertly placed boxy ’80s couches, wide windows with Spanish moss-covered trees beyond, and every tool needed for the styling of women’s hair. There’s even a shelf of Goldwell color and a shampoo sink (which, sadly, doesn’t use running water).

Haldoupis may have one of the most unified casts on a Rochester stage right now. All six women understand the true meaning of ensemble — absolutely imperative in this show — and they perform as one entity. The show is two hours with the intermission, and the cast pulls you in, so you don’t feel like you’re spending a night at the theater, but a morning at the salon, gabbing with girlfriends.

The women face a challenge to either fill or redefine roles so closely associated with the cast of the film. Alexa Scott (M’Lynn) and Mary Tiballi (Shelby) perhaps have the toughest tasks, taking on parts played by Sally Field and Julia Roberts. Scott’s tall, willowy figure and youthful face don’t align with her character’s age, but moments after opening her mouth, she is pure Southern matron, controlling and caring. Scott’s concluding monologue was so powerful it had many audience members in tears.

Tiballi has perfected her drawl to endear herself to both cast and audience. Her effervescence matched to Scott’s intensity creates laugh-out-loud moments for every mother and daughter in the audience.

When Cara D’Emanuele (Ouiser) bursts onto the stage, she livens up the entire auditorium. D’Emanuele is not intimidated in the role made famous by Shirley MacLaine, and she fills every nook and cranny of the persnickety character with feeling. It’s a grand goodbye for D’Emanuele, who recently moved to Manhattan and will no longer perform locally.

Rounding out the ensemble are Vicki Casarett, Kaitlin Meleski and Dawn M. Sargent, who demonstrate that it’s possible to steal the spotlight with subtle quirks and facial expressions.

Costume designer Lana Momano was charged with the hefty responsibility of clothing and styling (though hairstyling consisted of wigs, for the most part). While the wig design was flawless — some may wonder if Tiballi actually has a snappy pixie cut, and Sargent looked comfortable in her comb-out, a la Dolly Parton — the costumes left something to be desired in certain characters.

Momano is spot-on with choices for Clairee’s classic style, Ouiser’s don’t-care attitude (except those shoes resembling Toms in Act I), Truvy’s waist-cinching belts and M’Lynn’s reserved, motherly dresses. Tiballi’s grandmotherly pink sweaters and Meleski’s modern jeans are not as accurate (though Meleski’s cat glasses make up for the distraction).

Fans of the movie might be surprised by the play. It’s certainly more estrogen-infused, and does not have any of the male characters (a salon is “women’s territory” after all). That means no romantic trysts with Dylan McDermott or the character development seen as the women interact with their husbands.

Steel Magnolias is a play for mothers, daughters, friends and sisters. It’s a play for beauticians and folks with Southern roots. It’s a play that shows women are indeed as strong as steel, and as delicate as flowers.