Cherry Creek Theatre’s charming production is a bittersweet celebration of love and life

While I don’t recall all the details from the one and only time I watched the 1989 film Steel Magnolias, I do remember sobbing. Not crying; sobbing. And laughter – the laugh-out-loud kind.

So, I made sure to pack some tissues for the opening-night performance of the play at Cherry Creek Theatre. I warned my companion, who has somehow managed to never see the popular, highly acclaimed film, she might need them as well.

True to form, I left after the standing ovation with red-rimmed eyes and balled-up wads of tissue jammed into my pockets. While my friend strolled out dry-eyed, she still thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Which leads me to conclude that while the script for the play, which preceded the movie, is well crafted, it doesn’t quite have the depth and pathos of the film. The characters aren’t as developed as the longer and more complex screenplay for the movie allowed, which leaves the audience members less emotionally invested.

But then again, live theater is not about imitating a film or another version of a script; it is about creating your own interpretation of it. So, it seems only fair to leave the comparisons behind and focus on the production with a fresh perspective.

And through that lens, Cherry Creek Theatre’s well-rounded production of Steel Magnolias comes through on all fronts: a stellar ensemble cast, tight direction and spot-on set.

Humor and heartache

Some write-off Steel Magnolias as the ultimate “chick flick.” But that would be doing an injustice to the thin line it gracefully traverses between humor and heartache. And while it does dip into self-indulgence at a few points, the dry, but biting Southern charm woven throughout lifts it back up.

Although Robert Harling’s play only features six female characters (unlike the film, which had a larger cast that included males), it is deeper and more complex than the casual rom-com. Many attribute this to the fact that the playwright wrote it to help deal with his younger sister’s death from complications of Type 1 diabetes. Some even claim that the original characters are loosely based on his childhood neighbors.

The entire play takes place in Truvy’s beauty parlor in Chinquapin, Louisiana, during the 1980s. The Cherry Creek set has a clever rough frame of a house outlined in the background as a subtle reminder that it is actually a built-out carport. The interior takes front stage, with the vintage couch and knitted afghan balancing out the mandatory salon sink, chair and hair dryer. It’s comfortable and quaint, like the owner herself.

The costumes are not as starkly vintage, although much of that can be attributed to fashion’s repetitive style cycles. It was interesting to note that virtually none of the outfits worn by the characters would stand out on the street today. (Well, except for one character’s wild caftans, which would stand out in any era.)

Friendships revealed

As the play opens we immediately sense Truvy’s innate kindness as she delivers a heavy dose of Southern wisdom while bringing her nervous new hire, Annelle, up to speed. It will be a busy day of teasing and spritzing waves of sticky clouds of Aqua Net to prepare the local ladies for young Shelby Eatenton’s upcoming wedding. We’re quickly introduced to Clairee, a cheerful and somewhat overbearing wealthy widow of the town’s former mayor, and M’Lynn, the stately mother of the bride-to-be. It’s obvious that M’Lynn is overly protective of naïve but endearing Shelby, who blithely ignores her mother’s concerns as she shares the details of her perfect pink wedding to the group.

Talk of the wedding is soon interrupted by the arrival of the sixth, and final customer, Ouiser (pronounced “Weezer”). A flamboyant, grouchy neighboring widow with a chip-on-her-shoulder and razor for a tongue.

But Ouiser’s softer side is soon revealed as Shelby, who suffers from diabetes, collapses from the stress and is revived by the women, who learn that she has been warned by her doctor not to have children. She wanted to cancel the wedding, but her fiancé, Jackson, refused. The surrounding clutch of women assure that adoption is a perfectly acceptable option.

As the play progresses, we learn that Shelby has defied the doctors and gives birth to young Jack, while the young assistant, Annelle, has settled in and found love and the Lord.

As the six women’s friendships are polished to a gleam between gossip, witty observations and stinging retorts, you begin to understand how each has learned to cope with what life has brought them and how the salon provides them with both a sanctuary and support.

It is this friendship and understanding that holds them together when the darkest times come.

On-stage chemistry

Director Tara Falk brought together a stellar cast that is up to the challenge of the range of emotions and critical timing required of Steel Magnolias. While the pace was a tad frenetic on opening night, it should settle down.

Despite the rapid-fire repartee leaving little breathing room between lines, all six actors performed flawlessly. And, best of all, their chemistry clicked. This was particularly true between the two widows, Clairee (Martha Harmon Pardee) and Ouiser (Tracy Shaffer), whose complementary energies virtually vibrated off of each other.

And while the connection between M’Lynn (Suzanne Nepi) and Shelby (Ericka Mori) could be warmer, it was still believable — and Nepi’s anguish at the end feels real and raw. Mori’s wide-eyed and breathless interpretation of the youngest of the characters makes her sympathetic without being too saccharine sweet in her Cherry Creek Theatre debut.

The show certainly wouldn’t be complete without the foundational performances of local veteran actors Devon James (Truvy) and Shannon Altner (Annelle). Both completely owned their characters. While it felt like James was channeling Dolly Parton, who played the part in the original movie, she also gave off vibes of a sassy Kelly Clarkson. She was the glue that held the piece together on stage.

While Altner was heavy handed with Annelle, her journey from a naïve, frightened girl to a confident, faith-driven woman was right-on. Annelle’s sassy retort to Ouiser toward the end of the show is one of its highlights – the gleam in Altner’s eyes and sashay of her hips made the perfect exclamation point!

Bittersweet celebration of life

Steel Magnolias is another great post-pandemic choice for live local theater. It’s a celebration of friendships and the beauty of life shadowed by heartbreak and real-life struggles that make the brighter moments shine all that brighter. All of which feels more bittersweet after having gone through the shut-down and social distancing of the past 18+ months. Although it’s easy to forget our new reality during the show, the alternating rows roped off inside the beautiful Elaine Wolf Theatre in the Mizel Center are a stark reminder that we’re still not back to the old “normal.”

But, as Steel Magnolia proves, you don’t have to be “normal” to have fun.

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