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Tucson gets some Southern hospitality

Friendship shines in ‘Steel Magnolias’

Carlisle Ellis as M'Lynn (from left), Holli Henderson as Shelby, Megan Patno as Annelle, Kristi Loera as Truvy and Joan van Dyke as Ouiser in "Steel Magnolias."

Carlisle Ellis as M'Lynn (from left), Holli Henderson as Shelby, Megan Patno as Annelle, Kristi Loera as Truvy and Joan van Dyke as Ouiser in "Steel Magnolias."

It is reassuring to slip into a seat at Live Theatre Workshop’s comfortable production of the gentle yet encouraging play about Southern female bonding, “Steel Magnolias” by Robert Harling. The casting is balanced. The acting is good, and Sabian Trout, LTW’s new artistic director, is at the helm as director.

“Steel Magnolias” is a perennial favorite in regional theaters coast to coast. It is a chick play, to be sure, reminding us thoughtless men how wonderfully resilient women can be. In fact, the 1989 movie version also has a solid cast with Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Darryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts. You can watch the LTW production and just about tell which Hollywood celebrity had which role.

These days the show could be re-titled “Beauty Shop” and set alongside its male bonding counterpart, “Barber Shop.” Amateur sociologists of every stripe could spend an evening or two mixing and matching the gender stereotypes.

Here in “Steel Magnolias” the conversation is a bit gentler, but the strategy of leavening hard times with aggressive humor is the same. Sleep may be the opiate of the poor, but a good joke is a better weapon.

Set designer Seren Helday gets a nice feeling of resourceful economics in creating the beauty shop Truvy’s husband made for her by closing in their carport in Chinquapin, La. Truvy, played by Kristi Loera, is one of those Southern people determined to get her own way while being sweet as sugar to absolutely everybody. So we watch as her shop fills up with small-town characters whose problems reflect a certain resignation to their domestic roles.

These are middle-aged women for the most part, whose families are the center of their lives. “Steel Magnolias” opened off-Broadway in 1987 but already feels like a period piece from a time long gone. A modern version would have career women sitting around a spa, comparing divorce lawyers and byzantine office politics.

But in Chinquapin, La., Truvy lives by her motto, “There’s no such thing as natural beauty.” The friends we meet include M’Lynn (Carlisle Ellis), the caring mother of bright-eyed Shelby (Holli Henderson) who never met a shade of pink she didn’t like.

Representing folks who live on the wrong side of the tracks is Annelle (Megan Patno), a divorcee dedicated to the Lord. The most stable one is Clairee (Peg Peterson) and the most eccentric is outspoken Ouiser (Joan van Dyke).

The play’s arc begins with young Shelby’s medical problems as a diabetic who should never have children. While the older women flutter about, Shelby defiantly plans her wedding – with everything in shades of pink. Before intermission, Shelby announces she is pregnant.

Sure enough, complications set in. Act 2 shifts the play’s focus from Shelby to M’Lynn. At first, she is a typical mom, reluctant to untie the family apron strings to her exuberant daughter.

Of course, that doesn’t work. Shelby is determined to ignore common sense and make her own rules. So as Shelby’s life runs into a buzz saw, M’Lynn must decide what she’ll do next.



Grade: A

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through March 18

Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.

Price: $14-$17

Info: 327-4242, www.livetheatreworkshop.org

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