Saturday, May 22, 2010

Arts in Motion delivers laughters and tears with 'Steel Magnolias'

Barbershops and beauty salons have long been the place for lively conversation and uninhabited wisecracking. Robert Harling's “Steel Magnolias,” which Arts in Motion brings to the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. May 22, 27, 28, 29, 30 at 8 p.m., runs with that idea and is a fine portrait of female camaraderie.

The tagline for the 1989 film version of “Steel Magnolias” was “The funniest movie ever to make you cry” and, while funniest is perhaps a slight overstatement, that is a fair description of both the play and film. Simply saying things turn tragic is a spoiler in itself. Once the wheels of the plot get moving it is clear exactly where it is going and yet it still proves to be quite emotionally affecting.

All the play's action takes place at Truvy's Beauty Parlor, a salon in Louisiana where everyone has a quick witted, sassy one-liner in the ready. It is as if a team of comedy writer is in the backroom feeding them material. To be sure there's some sharp jokes here and the cast delivers them well.

The parlor is populated by a motley crew of women. Truvy (Alex Bradford) is the larger-than-life owner of the parlor; Annelle (Shelby Noble) is Truvy's new socially awkward assistant; Clairee (Paula Sullivan Jones) is the wealthy widow of the former mayor; Ouiser (Pamela MacDonald) is the local curmudgeon; Shelby (Hanna Paven) is the bubbly pretty girl in town; and M'Lynn (Holly Reville) is Shelby's doting, over-protective mother.

The plot centers around Shelby's marriage and the complications of her becoming pregnant. There is also a subplot involving Annelle's transformation for a shy withdrawn girl to a wild child to a born-again Christian. Noble plays this metamorphosis well and is strong in the early scenes in which Annelle is painfully awkward.

Director Barbara Spofford has pulled good work out of all her actresses and there is a good sense of the bond between these women. They have good chemistry and comic rapport together. It helps that they have a believable environment in which to perform. Set designer Deborah Jasien has created an impressive recreation of a beauty parlor.

Bradford is very funny as Turvy who has a big, boisterous personality and an even bigger heart. MacDonald is suitably bitter and sarcastic, but still manages to make Ouiser likeable. Jones is consistent throughout, but has a bit with MacDonald late in the second act that is particularly amusing and that breaks some heavy emotionally tension.

At the core of the show is the mother/daughter relationship between Paven and Reville. Paven is perky and sweet and plays Shelby with a bright, resilient optimism. She butts heads with Reville throughout the play. Reville plays M'Lynn as a reserved, concerned, but loving mother. She has a monologue late in the show that should get the tear ducts going.

“Steel Magnolias” is a fine showcase for the women in the cast. The plot is manipulative, but effective. It is a “I laughed, I cried” kind of show, and Arts and Motion has done an admirable job mounting it.

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