“Steel Magnolias” bloom in Pacifica through February 10

Fortunately for me, my recollection of the 1989 hit motion picture Steel Magnolias was sufficiently faded that nothing remained in my memory by Julia Roberts’ smile. I say fortunately because my take on tonight’s performance of the stage play was not colored by any expectations at all. The story, the characters, the setting were all new for me, the best way to see any theatrical performance. Each character grew with an easy grace, each situation unfolded with the natural evolution of a story well told, where every moment is new and the ending yet unknown. This has a lot to do with the decision of director Gary Pugh Newman and his talented cast to refrain from taking any cues from a recent viewing of the movie.

Set in Truvy’s hairdressing parlor in Louisiana’s fictional Chinquapin Parish, the four ladies who have met there over the years expand their fold to include one’s daughter about to be wed, and a restless waif looking for a place to call home. Set over the span of a year and a half, the younger women mature before our eyes; less obviously, so do the older women, as the cycles of wedding, divorce, birth and death pass through them, to us. Robert Harling’s 1987 script is peppered with off-the-cuff one-liners and malapropisms that these matrons of the deep South don’t even recognize, but the audience finds consistently funny.

The heart of the story comes to light in the second scene, with the conflict between the newly wed, diabetic and now pregnant Shelby (Stepy Kamei in her debut stage role), and her controlling mother M’Lynn (veteran Spindrift player Joanie Pugh Newman). There is heartbreak in this scene, and the courage of the young woman to break free and lead the life she wishes in spite of its risks. Those risks are great, and the heartbreak even greater as the play progresses, even after mother and daughter reconcile and face the hard choices together. The other women each have a stake in this, a share in the hope and grief they meet with compassion and comic relief in this marvelously witty and insightful play.

This is ensemble performance at its best. There is no single star; there are six. Hayley Thirlwall’s Annelle, the young lady who comes into the beauty-shop an unsure teenager, matures before our eyes. Lisa Lyon gives the role of Clairee its proper wit and weight, with a surprising turn to break the tension at M’Lynn’s most touching, dramatic moment. Joyce Jacobson as Ouiser enlivens the stage the moment she enters. Helen Artell’s Truvy, proprietress of the salon, anchors each scene with professional aplomb. Each player has more than a handful of shining moments on the stage, and generously shares that stage with the others. This is a tribute not only to the performers, but to the director’s skillful nurturing of them.

I have yet to attend any performance by the Spindrift Players that has not delighted and amazed me, and this opening night’s showing of Steel Magnolias is no exception.

Through February 10. 2013
Box office: (650) 359-8002
Spindrift website: http://pacificaspindriftplayers.org/

Review by David Hirzel:  www.davidhirzel.net