At midseason, the valiant Paper Mill Playhouse continues its desperate search for patrons and subscribers to rescue the financially threatened theater with an engaging revival of "Steel Magnolias,"
At midseason, the valiant Paper Mill Playhouse continues its desperate search for patrons and subscribers to rescue the financially threatened theater with an engaging revival of “Steel Magnolias,” Robert Harling’s 1987 soft-hearted comedy that journeyed from Off Broadway to the bigscreen and ultimately to Broadway in a commercially disappointing revival three years ago. On the Millburn stage, a keen ensemble swaps gossipy barbs with the kind of targeted comic timing of a TV sitcom.Among those gathered in a small Louisiana beauty shop is well-heeled Clairee Belcher, a widowed socialite played with polished reserve by Kelly Bishop, the original Sheila of “A Chorus Line.” As irascible curmudgeon Ouiser Boudreaux (“I’m not crazy, just in a bad mood for 40 years”), Beth Fowler hits the mark, balancing grumpiness with crusty humor and a misunderstood hidden warmth. Shelby, the sweet Southern belle and diabetic young bride, is played by a pert Kelly Sullivan with a bright, appealing edge, while Monique Fowler essays Shelby’s mother with the right notes of maternal concern. In the play’s final moments, she offers a touching display of anguish and grief. Charlotte Booker’s genial salon owner tosses off some of the playwright’s most pungent barbs with bull’s-eye marksmanship. But as born-again Christian Annelle, Kate Wetherhead adds a none-too-convincing, mousy turn with a series of revelations that offer little surprise. The tragicomedy is all very tidy. Karen Carpenter has staged the small-town saga by accenting the humor and softening the punch of the finale. The costumes are appropriately bland for the period. Hugh Landwehr’s set offers tacky seasonal change with a salon that appears a bit too cluttered on the expansive Paper Mill stage. Jeff Croiter’s sharp lighting design may serve the action well, once the cues are better defined.