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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Steel Magnolias

I love the idea of hiring somebody with a past — Truvy
From Left to Right, Charlotte Booker (Truvy Jones), Beth Fowler (Ouiser Boudreaux), Kelly Sullivan (Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie)
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Robert Harling's beauty salon-centric play, an Off Broadway success in 1987, was not well received when it was revived in 2005 on Broadway and closed after a brief run. I would wager that if the current production at the Paper Mill Playhouse had been the one that had opened on Broadway, it might still be running. It is simply that wonderful and entertaining Just about every aspect of this funny and sentimental play has been treated with consummate care and a genuine affection for the doings at Truvy's converted carport beauty shop in Chinkquapin, Louisiana. For a while, your eyes have as much to take in as your ears. Set designer Hugh Landwehr has spared no expense or detail in creating a proper ambiance.

The salon may have its proper complement of hair dryers, product-filled cabinets and comb-out stations, but it is the peripheral décor that defines the airy spacious bi-level salon. As the play progresses over the course of four seasons and a little more than two years, the bright yellow curtains, potted window plants, floral patterned furniture and wallpaper receive an array of extraordinary seasonal enhancements, all reflecting salon owner Truvy's more-is-more decorative instincts.

Of course, it takes more than the decorative arts to make a play. Harling has craftily braided plenty of crackling dialogue and a plethora of happiness and heartbreak through this appealing play that has had numerous regional productions over the years. Through the weekly gathering of regulars at Truvy's, Harling pays homage to those fondly and formidably remembered Southern belles of home. The play engagingly explores both the relationship between a mother and daughter and those of their close neighbors and friends in a venue designed for embracing a somewhat ritualistic sisterhood.

The true merits of the play are revealed in Karen Carpenter's brisk and attentive staging. Terrific performances from the all-women cast allow us to feel genuine affection for characters despite their mostly glib chatter. Harling, who based his play on real people and incidents, also wrote the screenplay for the film version that unfortunately has little resemblance, either in tone or spirit, to the charming, self-contained design of the play. Carpenter, an Associate Artistic Director of the Old Globe Theater, has filled up the expansive Paper Mill stage with plenty of amusing and attention-getting activity.

Much of it is in the hands of Charlotte Booker, who, as Truvy, the proprietress, is both endearing and a hoot in colorful get-ups and hairdos that would make the Ringling Brothers gasp. Truvy, whose motto, "There is no such thing as natural beauty, ," couldn't have a more delightful interpreter than the cosmetically perfected Booker. There is a joyful exhilaration in the comedic interplay between all the women, as well as a genuine poignancy achieved when the play moves beyond the expositional. Much is demanded of the actresses and much is forthcoming.

Kate Wetherhead is joy in the role of Arnelle, the dim-witted mousy born-again Christian salon assistant ("with a past,"). Kelly Sullivan is both pretty and a charmer as the ill-fated, think-pink Shelby whose wedding day preparations serve as the play's initial propellant. Getting her biggest and best dramatic licks at the end of the play when her personal tragedy is confronted and aired with the support of her friends doesn't prevent Monique Fowler, as Shelby's valiant mother M'Lynn, from being genuinely winning from the start.

Whatever you call it that Beth Fowler deploys as the feisty cantankerous Ouiser to works like a charm. Any actress who can authoritatively barge through an entire play with an attitude exemplified by, "I'm not crazy. I've just been in a bad mood for the past 40 years, ," has got my affection. Even the less idiosyncratic Claire, the money-to-burn radio station owner, is given a sturdy static-free delivery by Kelly Bishop (the original Sheila in A Chorus Line). All the accents are down pat, so sharpen up your hearing and head for Truvy's where hearts are touched even as hair is being touched up.

Steel Magnolia
By Robert Harling
Directed by Karen Carpenter
Cast: Kelly Bishop, Charlotte booker, Beth Fowler, Monique Fowler, Kelly Sullivan, Kate Wetherhead
Scenic Design: Hugh Landwehr
Costume Design: David Murin
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Randy Hansen
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes (including intermission)
Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
(973) 376 4343
Performances: Wednesday at 7:30 PM, Thursday and Sundays at 2 & 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8 PM, and Saturdays at 2 & 8 PM.
Tickets ($25 - $92)
Opened 03/09/08 Ends 04/06/08
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/09/08
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