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Theater Review: “Steel Magnolias” at the Keegan Theatre

Robert Harling's play, best-known for its 1989 film adaptation, can't quite measure up in this revival

Larissa Gallagher and Laura Herren star in the Keegan Theatre's production of Steel Magnolias. Photograph courtesy of the Keegan Theatre's Flickr account

☆☆ stars out of four

Interpreting a much-loved (or even relatively well-known) film classic onstage is always a tricky proposition, particularly when you’re a small organization with a limited budget. Sometimes it succeeds, as with Ford’s Theatre’s production of Sabrina Fair last year, and sometimes it become a confusingly truncated mishmash of redundant details, such as Arena Stage’s recent production of A Time to Kill. Steel Magnolias, currently running at Keegan Theatre, like Sabrina Fair, was originally written as a play but is almost universally known to audiences as a 1989 tearjerker starring Dolly Parton, Sally Field, and Julia Roberts. It therefore presents gargantuan shoes to fill—how can you outperform a woman who once said, “It’s a good thing I was born a girl, because otherwise I’d be a drag queen”?

Keegan’s production, directed by Mark A. Rhea, can’t, really, and yet instead of going in a different direction from the movie, as might have been wise, it feels like a hodgepodge of understated and exaggerated performances fused with a 20-year-old issue of Hair magazine. The play’s set in a small-town Louisiana hair salon, where Truvy (Larissa Gallagher) primps and backcombs and gossips with a cast of characters: quiet matriarch M’Lynn (Sheri S. Herren), M’Lynn’s daughter Shelby (Laura Herren, in a real-life mother-daughter casting coup), town grouch Ouiser (Linda High), bashful newcomer Annelle (Brianna Letourneau), and the ever-elegant former first lady Clairee (Jane E. Petkofsky). (Yes, these names all sound like oral contraceptives or do-it-at-home hair dyes, but that isn’t Keegan’s fault.)

Sheri Herren is one of Keegan’s founders, and has graced its stage in a vast range of productions, but she seems to have been miscast here. Her M’Lynn is so muted that she barely registers, and is far too subtly presented to make us believe she can stand up to her charmingly headstrong daughter. Herren is blessed with some of the most heartbreaking speeches in the show, but the way she delivers them, you’d almost think she was going over her weekend to-do list. She’s a graceful and engaging presence, but seems too tentative to really inhabit the role. Laura Herren, by comparison, makes for a chirpy, self-possessed Shelby, but considering the pair are mother and daughter in real life, their chemistry is surprisingly indistinct.

Gallagher, a native Australian, also falls short of what we expect the forceful, kindhearted Truvy to be—she’s not so much pneumatic as phlegmatic. So it falls to the supporting cast members to make up the extra energy required, which for the most part, they do. Brianna Letourneau is a surprisingly memorable Annelle, whether shyly confessing her marital secrets or ostentatiously breaking into prayer. Petkofsky is believable and engaging as Clairee, although she flubs her lines on more than one occasion. The real star of the show is Linda High as Ouiser: a brash, loud, outspoken force who rejects all social conventions. “I don’t see plays cause I can take a nap for free,” she tells the others in one of her snappier lines.

Carol Baker’s set is thoughtful and warmly cluttered, with enough bits and pieces lying around to convince us that this is Truvy’s home, as well as her pride and joy. In case Eric Nugent’s costumes (leg warmers and stonewashed denim abound) weren’t enough to firmly convince us this is set in the ’80s, sound designer Jake Null intersperses scenes with snippets of vintage pop, which don’t distract but don’t really complement either. Special mention should go to hair and makeup designer Craig Miller, who has taught the cast to style hair pretty convincingly, even though Shelby’s blonde wig deserves its own place in fake hair hell. This is a charmingly written play, and it’s more than occasionally entertaining, but as Dolly herself once said, “You’ll never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try.”

Steel Magnolias is at the Keegan Theatre through August 21; tickets ($35) available at Keegan’s Web site.

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