Tears and laughs for “Steel Magnolias”

By Carrie Moore

Confession time: I’ve never seen Steel Magnolias. 

(I’ll wait while you pick your jaw up from the ground.)

I started to watch the movie when I was 8 or 9, but it was so sad (and quite frankly, long!), so I turned it off and never watched it again. But seriously, it’s a movie that’s synonymous with “tear-jerker” in popular culture — why willingly put myself through that? 

But after seeing the Black Hills Playhouse’s (BHP) production, I’ve come to realize there’s so much more to it. For one thing, it’s hilarious — I definitely get the jokes now, 20 years later — and, more importantly, it’s a celebration of love, family and friends. 

“Steel Magnolias” was written in 1987 by Robert Harling as a tribute to his own sister who died of complications from diabetes. In 1989, the movie version debuted and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. No matter the version, “Steel Magnolias” is the bittersweet story of six women who gather under the dryers at Truvy’s Beauty Salon to share gossip, laughter, recipes and beauty secrets on four significant days across three years of their lives. What’s unique about “Steel Magnolias” is the fact that it’s relatable. These six women could be anyone’s family or neighbors, whose problems could, and do, happen to everyday ordinary people.

As “Steel Magnolias” opens, we meet Truvy Jones (Lera Zamaraeva), owner of the beauty shop, and new employee Annelle Dupuy-Desoto (Jacquelyn Kiefner), who was recently abandoned by her husband. As the day unfolds, the audience is introduced to football-loving, ex-mayor’s wife Clairee Belcher (Debbie Minter), hard-as-nails Ouiser Boudreaux (Siobhan Bremer), social worker M’Lynn Eatonton (Emily Cherry) and her daughter, Shelby (Kenzie Henderson).

There are some sub-plots in the play, but the main thread centers around M’Lynn and Shelby, who is getting married as the “Steel” opens. Shelby is a diabetic, which has had a large impact on her life, and, rightfully so, M’Lynn is a little overbearing. And while she may be smothering, her intentions are always good and come from a place of love. The two disagree often, from color palettes and hairstyles to more serious matters, like Shelby’s ability to take care of herself. But without question, there’s no lack of love or devotion, on either end.

Cherry and Henderson were dynamic as mother and daughter. They both showed a lot of heart and range of emotions. Henderson played her unfortunate character so strongly: she was upbeat, kind and beautiful. Even as her illness got the best of her, she was still so poise and positive. Cherry was also fierce and strong, even when she wasn’t speaking. 

When Shelby announces she’s pregnant and the others return to the beauty shop, M’Lynn remains silent and to herself. In those moments, Cherry was strong and pensive; you could feel the raw emotion. And in the second act, during M’Lynn’s infamous breakdown, Cherry made you feel every emotion, making those big fat tears roll (or in some cases, stream) down your face. It’s a whirlwind of emotion and a stunning performance by Cherry. My favorite, to date.

In addition to her mother, Shelby is doted on by the other women in the circle of friends. 

In a way, Truvy is almost like a second mother to Shelby, always offering up kind words, changing the subject and overall, helping her through the bumps in the road. Zamaraeva was a wonderful Truvy; her demeanor perfectly embodies the warm, kind Southern hospitality Truvy has to offer. Zamaraeva has such a kind smile and voice and, let’s be honest, the best lines in the production: “Smile! It increases your face value!” “…he don’t know whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt.” “In a good shoe, I wear a size six, but a seven feels so good, I buy a size eight.” Zamaraeva nails them all. 

Step on in to Truvy’s Hair Salon, where Annelle (Jacquelyn Kiefner) is ready to make you over! (Photo courtesy of Black Hills Playhouse/Kenzie Henderson)

Truvy is a mother-of-sorts to new employee, Annelle, who comes with a mysterious history. Kiefner is the perfect Annelle, young and naïve, but despite seeming weak (due to the character, not the actor), proves to be an incredibly strong woman, who picks herself up and marches on. Kiefner is strong and capable, getting some laughs, particularly when interacting with — ahem, praying for — Bremer’s Ouiser.

Speaking of, Bremer and Minter garnered laugh after laugh with their back and forth banter and insults. Both were witty and quick, making those unbearably sad moments a little bit lighter and those funny moments that much more hysterical. 

Bremer’s Ouiser is the epitome of older, Southern womanhood, with the perfect blend of sarcastic grouch. But don’t turn away due to her bark, underneath there’s a heart of gold. Bremer was great in her delivery, tone and stage presence. 

Clairee is all gossip and talk, yet struggles to find her place after the death of her mayor husband. But thanks to her friends, she knows her presence is valued. Like Bremer, Minter is quick with her delivery and has a wonderful energy on stage. I also really loved her interactions with Cherry.

The BHP production is directed by Egla Hassan, which I found to be genuine, heartfelt and profound. And don’t forget funny! I loved Hassan’s approach to these characters and the overall movement of the production. While there’s a variety of emotion, “Steel Magnolias” did ebb and flow through the good, sad and hilarious. The play never seemed too hurried, nor static in one area over the other. It was a great balance and rhythm, which is wonderfully attributed to its great direction and wonderful cast.

For me, there were two very important parts of “Steel Magnolias” that can’t be overlooked: the set and the hair. 

Because the play takes place in a beauty shop, the concept and styling of hair needs to be accurately portrayed. It was clear to see that Hassan and costume designer Camilla Morrison took that very seriously, so both Kiefner and Zamaraeva spent time at Headlines Academy in Rapid City, where they learned how to wash and style hair, right down to the types of curing processes and how to hold and use stylizing tools. It was a smart choice to do that, because the characters were so much more authentic and real. I really felt like I was in a salon, waiting my turn for a trim.

Because of the quick changes through the years (and, hello, it’s the ’80s), wigs were utilized for the actors. These were great quality wigs, which really looked legitimate and closely matched each character’s personality. 

While there are six ladies on stage, there’s one more character in “Steel Magnolias” — the set. 

Truvy’s Beauty Shop has an identity all it’s own: it’s warm, personable and hospitable. It’s the source of celebration, turmoil and incredible sadness. It may be a little converted room, but it has a pulse.

Scenic designer Jacee Caserella brought the set to life with her vision. Truvy’s shop is housed in a converted car port, so the shell of that is easy to identify. But inside, the beauty shop is full of color and life. I was so impressed by how the set looked and functioned. Electricity ran throughout, as did water — there was a working shampooing station! No details were missed — magazines in the waiting area, hairstyle pictures on the walls and nail polish bottles neatly lined on a movable cart. It was just so much fun to look around and take in every bit.

The set was beautifully lit by lighting director Stephen Azua. I really liked the back lighting, which gave a snippet of the inside of Truvy’s house, as well as the neighboring yard. The lighting made the space seem so much bigger and warmer — making it a true home.

Once again, I liked how sound designer Christopher George Haug played music prior to the start and at intermission of “Steel Magnolias,” staying true to the era and theme. The sound quality of the show was also really crisp and clear. However, I think my most favorite part was when the radio was playing in the shop. It was a dull noise in the background, but every so often you could hear a familiar tune. It was a great touch.

Like the wigs and hairstyles, Morrison put a lot of research into the fashion of the 1980s. There were wild prints, ill-fitting tops and skirts and bold colors throughout the production. I thought it was most interesting how each character’s clothes truly represented them — sharp, warm, pink — yet evolved as time and situations changed them. The strength of the characters were prevalent in their costumes — sharp, crips lines and edges — but they were also feminine with their colors and prints, as well as their hair. I really liked how Annelle’s clothing changed as she became more involved with her church — a subtle evolution that really defines her character. The power of costume!

So let me be honest with you: yes, “Steel Magnolias” is a heartbreaking story. Yes, you will cry. (And I’m talking ugly, red cheeks, puffy eyes cry.) But it’s a story that shows the power and resilience of the human spirit and exemplifies the bond that comes with true friendship. And that’s worth crying over.

There’s no time to waste in seeing the final BHP production of the season. “Steel Magnolias” runs through Aug. 25 and is rated PG. Get your tickets now by visiting blackhillsplayhouse.com.

What did you think of the show? Leave a comment and let us know!