Theater Review: ‘Steel Magnolias’ Leaves Audience with all the Feels

With straightforward stage design and simple scene transitions, the quality of Temple Theatre’s Steel Magnolias rested mostly on the shoulders of its six-person cast.

Robert Harling’s classic drama follows the lives of a tight-knit group of Southern women in a tiny Louisiana town, all of them in different stages of life. The action takes place in a small beauty parlor, which the friends each treat as their own home.

Traci Yeo, as the young ingenue Shelby, and Melanie Simmons, as her loving mother M’Lynn, both delivered standout performances — necessary, as their powerful bond is at the heart of the show. But there were also a few too many moments that fell flat, particularly with the ensemble as a whole.

At times, the stage felt crowded, with actors careful to hit their marks instead of going with the flow of the scene. Comedic moments were hit or miss, with some slightly too tense and others easily feeling fun, chaotic and off-the-wall.

Perhaps it was the anticipation of opening night, but it took this Steel Magnolias cast some time to settle into the show. The best moments came in the second act, when they finally got used to having an audience.

The performances of Caryn Crye, as Truvy Jones and Lilly Nelson, as Annelle, were stilted, as if they were simply going through the motions. In contrast, Lynda Clark, as the cynical neighbor Ouiser, stole every scene she was in.

Ouiser is an easy character to love, but it was Clark’s performance that truly brought her to life. Clark threw herself into the role with a natural physicality and cadence, never letting her performance slip for even a second.

Elizabeth Michaels also hit a wonderful note as Clairee, a maternal, passive-aggressive gossip with an unexpected penchant for underhanded humor. Her natural grace and good timing made it easy to see her sitting in the corner of any hole-in-the-wall diner with a group of Southern gals.

While the cast mostly stuck to subtle Southern accents, Yeo’s dialect did occasionally slip. Not too much to complain about, given that none of the actors oversold their accents.

Costume and hair changes effectively underlined the changes in the characters, but it would have been nice to see a few more subtle set changes to reflect the passage of time. Most of the added decorations or changes were window dressing, not really giving you a feeling of months or years passing.

Highlights of this production of Steel Magnolias came from moments of high emotion when the cast embraced a few seconds of silence. It’s easy to tell when actors fall short with difficult material ‑­- like the tense suspension of a medical emergency or a monologue addressing the death of a daughter. Thankfully, they had no trouble.

Yeo and Simmons struck a wonderful balance between the easy companionship of family and the anger and irritation that comes from any close-quarters relationship between mother and daughter. M’Lynn’s worry over her daughter’s health was palpable, as was the push and pull between the two as each struggled to convince each other that their way was best.

The foundation they built paid off in the last scene, when M’Lynn’s brittle facade of coping finally cracked in a physical breakdown over her daughter’s absence, enough to move even distant audience members to tears.

The conclusion of Steel Magnolias is a wild swing of emotion from grief to anger to hysterical relief. In the end, the proven bond between the women, even without Shelby’s bright pink personality in the room, left the audience feeling good.

Due to COVID-19, the Temple Theatre production of Steel Magnolias closed. For an updated list of COVID-19 cancellations and postponements, visit the RDU on Stage list of resources.

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