Theater Review: Forest Moon Production of ‘Steel Magnolias’ is Steeped in Sentimentality and Nostalgia

Nobody spills the tea quite like the women of Chinquapin Parish. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then chances are you haven’t been indoctrinated to the sisterhood of Steel Magnolias.

Steel Magnolias opened off-Broadway in 1987. It wasn’t until 2005, however, 16 years after a successful film adaptation had been released, that Robert Harling’s play made its Broadway debut.

Now, to commemorate the film’s 30th anniversary, Forest Moon Theater in Wake Forest is presenting Harling’s stage play. And that gives Triangle audiences a chance to either be formally introduced or get reacquainted with Harling’s memorable characters.

Unlike the movie, the entire play is set in Truvy’s Beauty Salon, where, over the course of 18 months, six friends convene to exchange recipes, share stories, and comfort each other through life’s ups and downs. It is a character-driven piece that is contingent upon the cohesion and chemistry of the cast. The audience has to believe these women really are lifelong friends and not just a group of actors thrown together. Fortunately, this production boasts a tenacious cast who deliver just that.

Kelly Stansell, who stepped into the show as a replacement with only a day to prepare, plays Truvy. Stansell not only embodies this character but also jells with the rest of the cast as if she had been on set from day one. This kind of last-minute substitution could have been ruinous to this production, and the fact that it wasn’t, is a testament to Stansell’s skill, the resilience of the rest of the cast, and some sound leadership on the part of the Mia Peters, the show’s director.

Alicia Whitfield plays the sharp-tongued Clairee, the former first lady of Chinquapin Parish. As in the movie, Clairee has some of the funniest lines, and Whitfield delivers those moments with just the right amount of verve to make them her own. In a departure from some of her recent dramatic roles, Liz Webb shows off a proficiency and knack for comedic timing as Annelle. And Nicola Lefler’s portrayal of Ouiser is restrained and complements, rather than overshadows, the others.

But at the center of this story is the relationship between M’Lynn and her daughter Shelby. As Shelby, Tori Shue plays more to her character’s unwavering determination and strong will than her vulnerabilities. Christine Rogers’ approaches the character of M’Lynn with a genuineness that doesn’t feel over-acted, over-dramatic, or sappy. The pair together are believable as mother and daughter and the palpable tension between them steers the show briskly towards its dramatic climax.

There are a few problems with this production, namely some lengthy scene transitions, some of which seem frivolous, and a lack of focus during a couple of pivotal moments in the latter half of the play. There are also some references in Harling’s script that are outdated. Even so, what makes this show work is its realness. Harling wrote the script just months after his younger sister died of complications from diabetes, and that unhindered raw emotion, laughter through tears if you will, comes through in the writing and the execution of this production.

At the end of the day, this production is high in entertainment value and offers a sweet retelling of a story about strong southern women and friendship. It’s comfort food, steeped in sentimentality and nostalgia, that warms the heart and is easy to digest.

The Forest Moon Theater production of Steel Magnolias runs through September 29th at The Renaissance Center in Wake Forest. For more information visit https://forestmoontheater.org/steel-magnolias/.

For a complete performance schedule, visit the RDU on Stage Theater Calendar page.

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