Milwaukee Repertory Theater Opens Their Main Stage with Steel Magnolias!

I have never seen this play before and I hadn’t seen either of the movies, so I only had a vague idea of what to expect. Of course there would be 1980s era Southern dialect and atmosphere and I expected the one liners and overall humor…but I wasn’t quite ready for the drama and heartbreak. And after doing a bit of background on this today, I also didn’t realize that this is actually based on a true story from playwright Robert Harling’s life and the death of his sister. Thankfully, he was able to make art and reach out to us in his sorrow.

While waiting for curtain, we get to peruse Collette Pollard’s incredible set of Truvy’s beauty salon. Thankfully the script lets us know where we are because I was wondering how someone could successfully run a salon out of doors in Louisiana…but we are looking into Truvy’s place uninhibited by the walls of the car port her husband enclosed so she could support them! And we can sit and wonder how the Rep found all of the correct hair dryers and stylist stations and such as well. But this set design makes perfect sense and utilizes the Rep’s thrust stage to perfection, giving the characters space to work and the audience the sense of time and place of the story.

Photo by Michael Brosilow and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

One other thing that does not inhibit our enjoyment of the play is the male characters! They only live here through the stories and conversation of the six women who inhabit the salon. So the focus is more salient to our story…and even for those who know the movie and enjoyed it…the stage play will be a new experience to enjoy and savor.

Photo by Michael Brosilow and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

We are quickly introduced to all of the characters and the initial focus is on Shelby, the bride to be, and the customer of the day. So there’s a lot of joy here and a lot of conversation that brings out the personalities of all six women pretty quickly and we get to know the salon’s dynamic! Little do we expect there are little clues here as to the drama that is about to unfold behind the humor and how the mood will change…but the relationships strengthen and hold the women together. But Shelby will come back into focus again…and given that focus, Phoebe Gonzalez plays our Shelby to perfection as she grows and becomes aware of her own wants and needs and the focus on her own life. A very poignant and skilled transition.

And don’t forget Rebecca Hirota as Truvy Jones, who runs the salon, takes a risk on a new stylist (Annelle played by Maeve Moynihan), and provides the common ground for the disparate characters who are her customers. Ms. Hirota has clearly taken to this role as if it were originally her own!

And M’Lynn is Shelby’s mother and in the early going you don’t really expect her to step out or step up from the initial impression we catch in the early going. But she does and as the situation takes its turns for the worse, she finds a new strength and resolve and oh my goodness, Janet Ulrich Brooks reaches for those peaks of emotion and helps us deal with our grief through her efforts to deal with hers!

Photo by Michael Brosilow and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

And of course we have Ouiser played by Meg Thalken, who is the perfect curmudgeon and foil who has simply been in a bad mood for forty years! And Tami Workentin as Clairee, a recent widow who brings some ‘class’ and ‘refinement’ to the mix…and of course football! And the tentative Annelle, Maeve Moynihan, who develops into Truvy’s right hand and a forward and determined individual after being reborn in her religion. The perfect characters to round out our cast and crew in 1980s Louisiana.

So, even if you have seen the movie, seeing this play live in the Quadracci Theater will be a new and special treat that shouldn’t be missed! These women will tell you a funny and moving story live and in person!

Photo by Michael Brosilow and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

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