Friday, November 27, 2015

Review: 'Steel Magnolias'

It's dated, and full of laugh-lines that sink (among some genuinely funny ones), but "Steel Magnolias" at Bristol Riverside Theatre is notable for its ensemble acting by an excellent cast. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from Bucks County.

Review: 'Steel Magnolias'

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Jo Twiss (left), Jennie Eisenhower and Laura C. Giknis in Bristol Riverside Theatre's production of "Steel Magnolias."

By Howard Shapiro

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,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,

Steel Magnolias: Through April 8 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Tickets: $30-$50. Information: 215-785-0100 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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