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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Steel Magnolias at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival

Or: Hail Ouiser

Robert Harling’s 1987 Steel Magnolia’s is a play with a origin as captivating as its plot. Created in 10 days during “a 24/7 tsunami of Southernness”, Harling’s dauntless comedy is not only a smart and sassified story but an honest love note to his sister and all the southern women who had raised, supported and taught him to mind his manners. The temple of these fragile pillars is Truvy’s Hair Salon of Chinquapin Louisiana; a meeting place for women to discuss their problems ensconced in the 1980’s but doubtless reaching back to the depths of history. Truvy (Kathryn Cherasaro) is in the middle of preparing Shelby (Allegra Rose Edwards) for her wedding day, while training her new troubled assistant Annelle (Becca Ballenger) and swapping secret joys and heart breaks with boisterous Claree (Carole Healey), crotchety Ouiser (Lynn Alison) and Shelby's indefatigable mother M’Lynn (Laura Perrotta), who fears more for her daughters heart, and health, than she is willing to let on.

Togged out in Gage Williams, bright and jolly set and wrapped up in Kim Krumm Sorenson’s tasteful and tactful costumes, Sari Ketter’s production welcomes us in to the comfortable world of Harling’s play, to a place that makes us feel at home. Ketter neither tries to expand the play to a high metaphor, or shrink it down to a detail oriented play but lets it exists comfortably where it should: a truly funny play about friends being friendly, sharing their triumphs, and tragedies. In the first act, she sometimes commands her cast to put quotations around the quips, flashing the high sign to the audience the timber of the joke about to be pitched (rather than trusting in the bantering style which bubbles so playfully in this story and this culture), and sometimes adds more movement than there needs to be, but generally does a tender job in fleshing out the tender motions of teasing out hair and teasing out a story.

Of course, homy or not, staggering or not it is almost impossible to go wrong with Steel Magnolias simply because of the gifts Harling showers upon his actresses, gifts that the ladies of Idaho are happy to accessorize and tailor to their own particular talents. Edwards and Cherasaro swap their characters usual highlights of pensively and mischief, making touching and vibrant colorings of each. Healey, rejoices in her monopoly of zingers, cracking joke after joke like a kid with a string of firecracker. Perrotta is in fine form, handing out snug judgements and dry observations like father christmas. She takes the intriguing decision to keep M’Lynn, for all her joshing a stoic throughout the play, slightly aloof from the kiddings of her daughter and friends, until worry, like a terrible over friendly dog, licks away her composure to find the raw and heart-hammering fear hidden beneath. For her part Ballenger takes the usually undersold and cast aside Annelle and, like a first-class magician, transforms her through the months into three completely distinct portraits; each complete with a gradients of a balletic clumsiness, each lovable and wonderfully strange, and each detailed and cared for as her wigs.

But of course the crowing jewel of the production, as is of any Steel Magnolias, is Alison’s Ouiser. Her signature archness, finely crafted and expertly marinadéd makes a rare compliment to champion southern curmudgeon, who’s barbs, while not as many as Clairee are amongst the finest in the show. With an imperious sweep, a disgruntled wrinkle and a few bitter but heartfelt apologies, Alison wears Ouiser like a crown, war leader of these wise and wordy Amazons, sparking “laughter through tears”, exactly as Harling meant his love letter to be.

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