The crowd milling in the Lyceum lobby these days is about 40% gay men, 50% women and 10% the lost-looking husbands they dragged in, leaving little doubt about the key demographics of “Steel Magnolias.” A comforting blend of sitcom and soap, Robert Harling’s play about the strength and solidarity of Southern women might not have been screaming for a Broadway berth, but it is brought enjoyably to life by director Jason Moore and his sassy cast. It’s the theatrical equivalent of nestling under the warming cocoon of a hair dryer while your highlights set and flipping through a juicy gossip mag with a tearjerker installment.
No one will argue this is up there with Eugene O’Neill, but Harling’s 1987 play cracked the winning formula of dish, laughs, hairdos and tears with enough freshness and genuine feeling — not to mention a stream of irresistible one-liners — to become a long-running Off Broadway hit, a regional theater staple and a popular movie on permanent rerun cycle.
Unlike the 1989 feature, in which the women’s husbands and partners were developed as onscreen characters, the play is an all-girl event, with four of its six characters providing showy roles for actresses d’un certain age. The group assembled here rarely equals the heights of the indomitable Frances Sternhagen, who walks away with the show with little visible effort. But while some of the cast members are still settling into their roles and Moore (“Avenue Q”) doesn’t exactly push them to go deep, there’s not an unappealing performance in the ensemble.
Inspired by the loss of the playwright’s diabetic sister, the play is set entirely in the no-man’s land of a Chinquapin, La., beauty parlor run by raunchy good ol’ gal Truvy (Delta Burke). The action starts with hair preparations for the wedding of Shelby (Rebecca Gayheart), the diabetic daughter of M’Lynn (Christine Ebersole).
The play unfolds over a two-year period in an unhurried shampoo, set and gab mode as the women reveal much about themselves and each other through their affectionately bitchy banter. The narrative backbone comes from Shelby’s health issues, which worsen when she ignores doctors’ and her mother’s advice and endangers her life by having a baby. Harling’s chief concern is showing that no matter how much these women play up any friction between them in their barbed repartee, they supply an unfailing lifeline of support, compassion and love for each other in ways not fulfilled by their men.
Exuding all the breezy confidence of a girl who’s always been popular and pretty, Gayheart’s Shelby provides a strong center, allowing only brief glimpses of the cracks in her cheerful, optimistic veneer and refusing to be treated as fragile goods by the clucking women around her. Willowy Ebersole’s erect carriage and crisp, dry delivery suit a caring woman not easily given to displays of emotion, making her eventual release quite touching.
Following in the wake of Dolly Parton by making wisecracking romantic Truvy more of a personality than a character, Burke seems a little subdued, but her TV veteran’s sitcom timing serves her fine. As sour frump Ouiser, Marsha Mason also starts out a little stiff, but mellows nicely as her gruffness subsides. Playing jumpy new salon recruit Annelle, Lily Rabe (daughter of Jill Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe) sketches a sweetly self-conscious innocent in more worldly wise company, her born-again Christianity and tacky handicrafts mania fondly indulged by the other women.
The stylish, stinking rich widow of the former mayor, Clairee scores all the best lines and Sternhagen is priceless in the role. Impeccably turned out in smartly accessorized Chanel-style suits, this primly poised woman is self-deprecating but still vitally engaged by life, much of which she finds drolly amusing. Sternhagen’s pursed lips rarely part for anything less than a perfectly timed zinger.
David Murin’s costumes deftly help define the characters, from the trashy glamour of Truvy’s bejeweled smock tops to Ouiser’s utilitarian velour jogging suits and Shelby’s multiple variations on her signature color, pink. Anna Louizos’ detailed set creates a kitsch suburban salon (converted out of a carport) in the late 1980s that could almost as easily be the ’50s.
Moore at times lets the rhythms of the girl-talk slump and the play could stand to lose 10 minutes or so. But considering the amount of business the actresses have to attend to while keeping the chitchat flowing, it’s perhaps no wonder some of the cast is still finding its groove. After conjuring elaborate updos, voluminous bouffants and bouncing curls onstage eight perfs a week, Burke and Rabe might qualify to sideline in hairdressing. That’s if the amount of hairspray they’re inhaling doesn’t kill them first.