Three thousand air miles and three decades separate modern-day Juneau and mid-1980s rural Louisiana. Perseverance Theatre bridges this seemingly impossible gap with its latest offering, “Steel Magnolias,” a celebration of the Deep South way up here in the Far North.
Based upon his own childhood experiences growing up in Natchitoches, playwright Robert Harling — who would go on to write several celebrated feature films including “Soapdish,” “The First Wives Club” and “The Evening Star” — set his debut work in the fictitious small town of Chinquapin.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the “Steel Magnolias” 1987 off-Broadway premiere (it didn’t run on Broadway until 2005). It receives most of its popularity from the 1989 film adaptation (also written by Harling) starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts.
“Steel Magnolias” doesn’t just paint a colorful portrait of life below the Mason-Dixon line. Combining light humor and quirky characters with a heart-rending plotline, it’s an exploration of time and place, and the strong influence of environment on the way people interact with each other.
But how well does a production suffused with magnolias, honeysuckle and jasmine play in the land of spruce, fireweed and devil’s club?
Well, to borrow one of the script’s many quotable turns-of-phrase: “if you don’t have anything nice to say… come sit by me.”
Kidding, kidding. In truth, I only have nice things to say about Perseverance’s production of “Steel Magnolias” — very nice things.
First and foremost, it’s funny, all the way around; every character is armed with a quiver of zingers. Call me old-fashioned, but when I see a comedy — no matter where it takes place — I like to laugh. And at this show, I laughed almost continuously.
I also found the production “comfortable,” you know, in that Southern hospitality kind of way. As an audience member, I felt invited in, so to speak. And that may be the point.
“Steel Magnolias” takes place entirely inside Truvy’s, a successful in-home beauty salon — actually, an enclosed carport, we eventually learn — where a coffee-klatch of neighborhood ladies have a standing Saturday appointment.
Structured as a succession of gabfests between the local clientele — rife with put-downs, send-ups and one-liners — “Steel Magnolias” tells a story of love, laughter and loss, beauty, strength and sass. In two well-paced acts, six women’s lives unfold while their hair is cut, dyed, dried, styled and sprayed. So much hairspray. I shudder to think at Perseverance’s expenditure on Aqua Net Super Hold.
Along with Truvy (“Honey, time marches on and eventually you realize it’s marchin’ across your face”) and her anxious assistant, Annelle (“I didn’t know if you’d hire someone who may or may not be married to someone who may or may not be a dangerous criminal”), the characters include wealthy widow and former first lady of Chinquapin, Clairee Belcher (“The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize”); local curmudgeon Ouiser Boudreaux (“I’m not crazy; I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years”); compassionate career woman M’Lynn Eatenton (“I did not raise my daughter to talk to me like this!”) and her daughter Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie (“Yes, you did!”).
Sure, the Perseverance cast may not include any big-time movie stars, but with the “action” limited to a single set, the production draws its strength, energy and color entirely from its cast.
Under the crisp direction of Carolyn Howarth, whose previous Perseverance directing credits include “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” and “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” “Steel Magnolias” is a fun romp for great actors.
These women have big hair and even bigger personalities. Stacy Katasse serves up a heapin’ helpin’ of Southern-fried sass as Truvy. Sarah Everett, in the role of Annelle, blossoms from shy stranger to self-assured friend (and religious zealot). And, of course, Becky Orford and Gigi Lynch are both wonderful as lifelong frenemies Clairee and Ouiser, respectively, blending sarcastic humor with surprising warmth.
But ultimately, “Steel Magnolias” is a story about love and tension between a mother and daughter. Longtime Perseverance company member Katie Jensen shines as M’Lynn, delivering a nuanced portrayal of woman torn between motherly concern and the desire for her child’s happiness. And Naomi Prentice, originally from Lousiana, plays Shelby with girlish innocence and fierce determination.
Of course, this isn’t an easy play for some men to love. You really do feel like “one of the girls” for a few hours.
But that, too, may be the point. After all, you know what they say: don’t judge a woman until you’ve walked a mile in her shoes — and from what I understand, they can be really uncomfortable.
• Geoff Kirsch is a freelance writer living in Juneau.