The reason Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias” seems destined to be produced in perpetuity is its remarkable ability to generate belly laughs and involuntary tears in the course of two hours. The play, which has become a staple of regional theaters and community playhouses across the country, isn’t exactly a farce. Neither is it a melodrama. And it’s not really a comedy of manners. But it has elements of all of the above. Set in a Louisiana beauty shop, Harling’s play creates a self-contained little universe of gossipy, big-hearted women. The production now onstage at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, directed by Marc Liby, is rather wobbly in places, but the talented cast works well together and ultimately exerts control over the material. Truvy Jones (Nancy Nail) runs the beauty shop and has just hired a new stylist, the awkward and jittery Annelle (Kenna Hall), a young woman who has been abandoned by her good-for-nothing husband.
The most important customer of the day is Shelby (Stefanie Wienecke), a young bride to be who wants to be gussied up for her wedding. Also on hand are Clairee (Peggy Friesen), a wealthy matriarch; M’Lynn (Licia Watson), Shelby’s mom; and the brash Ouiser (Marilyn Lynch), an amusing loose cannon. The dramatic through-line has to do with Shelby’s health. A diabetic, the young beauty is advised by the family doctor not to have children because her body might not be able to take the stress. Ultimately she disregards the doctor’s advice and has to deal with consequences, as do her mother and all of her friends from the beauty parlor.
Harling’s script is a festival of one-liners, and for the zingers to hit home the cast’s timing needs to be impeccable. That was not the case in the early going of Act 1 at the Thursday night performance. The pacing was chaotic, and the show seemed in danger of going off the rails before it even got started. But the talented actors settled down as the show progressed. They found the shadings in Harling’s piece, and both the comedy and drama were played for maximum effect after intermission. Lynch, who specializes in playing noisy misanthropes, is at her comic best as the broad-brushed Ouiser. Hall plays Annelle’s nervousness too broadly at the outset but handles the character’s remarkable transformation during the course of the play with impressive skill.
Friesen brings a sort of elegant deadpan humor to the stage as Clairee. Wienecke is a luminous presence as Shelby and handles the character’s dramatic arc impressively. As Shelby’s mom, Watson delivers a heartfelt performance as a mother who is forced to accept the harsh truth that she can’t save her daughter from bad choices or fate. As Truvy, the brash, chattering proprietress, Nail has some fun with a clownish role. As an ensemble, the actors convey the mutual love shared by these women, which is really what the show is all about. Karen Paisley’s set design is decorated as a sort of 1980s disposable-merchandise museum.
Lacey Pacheco’s lighting design is effective, and the costumes, designed by Erica Sword, convey a rich sense of humor.
“Steel Magnolias” runs through May 4 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. Call 816-569-3226 or go to METKC.org.