By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Never dismiss the power of an excellent cast to supply some brio to a wan play. Good thing, too, because I can’t imagine a so-so cast trying to bring off the dated Steel Magnolias, whose characters often toss barbs that seem more scripted than natural.
But at Bristol Riverside Theatre, where Steel Magnolias opened Thursday night, at least I found joy in watching superior acting. And not just that — superior ensemble acting. The story of six women living close-knit hick-town lives takes place in a beauty shop, where the characters are almost always together during the four scenes spanning two acts. Bringing it off demands that they act as a unified force — at that, the cast at Bristol excels.
Jennie Eisenhower is Shelby, who’s getting married in the small Louisiana town where Steel Magnolias is set in the ’80s, and she brings to the role impressive nuance; she plays a young adult challenged by a debilitating diabetes that she will not accept as a wall blocking the life in front of her.
Her mom (Barbara McCulloh) lives next the beauty shop where Shelby is getting her wedding-day hairdo from the shop owner (Jo Twiss), whose place is a clearinghouse for gossip and dishing. The late mayor’s wife (Diane J. Findlay) is a regular and so is a curmudgeonly friend who lives down the block (Susan Moses). A new stylist (Laura G. Giknis) is trying to become one of this crowd, and all the women are welcoming — maybe she’ll reveal a backstory they can chew on.
These characters, in this set-up, are an opportunity for an electric script, but Robert Harling — who later wrote the film The First Wives Club — gives Steel Magnolias a treatment more glib than gleeful, with lines like “the only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize” and “you are too twisted for color TV” among too few genuinely funny zingers.
The story behind the play — it opened Off-Broadway in 1987, became a big-cast movie hit in ’89 and was a short-lived Broadway production in 2005 — may reveal why Harling seemed to hold back. He wrote the play after his younger sister died from complications caused by diabetes, and he wanted it to be realistic. In its word-play, it is — someone may be prone to say “there is no such thing as natural beauty” in a time-passing conversation but on stage, two hours of this is not so welcome.
In the first act, we get only to know the characters; the entire plot takes place in the second, when Steel Magnolias awkwardly tries to blend comedy with tragedy. But Bristol’s actors, in a staging by the company’s founding director, Susan D. Atkinson, finesse the clunky writing and make some sense of the challenge at the manipulative end, when Steel Magnolias transparently goes after whatever heartstrings it finds yankable.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
Steel Magnolias: Through April 8 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Tickets: $30-$50. Information: 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.