Steel Magnolias

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Editorial Review

‘Magnolias’ sans steel

By Celia Wren
Friday, July 29, 2011

At one point in "Steel Magnolias," Robert Harling's strenuously quirky, heartstring-yanking play about friendships between gossipy Southern women, Truvy, the owner of a hair salon, repairs a blown fuse. A comparable tweak of circuitry seems in order for the Keegan Theatre's production of this 1987 comedy-drama: The six actresses in director Mark A. Rhea's cast deliver the script's quipping humor with enthusiasm, and, for the most part, they clearly define their oh-so-oddball characters. But the onstage dynamic often feels oddly low in energy - like a hair dryer running during a brownout.

The female-bonding narrative meanders around on designer Trena Weiss-Null's detailed set: a beauty parlor, complete with linoleum floor, black vinyl chairs and shelves packed with hair products. This is the salon that Truvy (Larissa Gallagher) and her flaky assistant, Annelle (Brianna Letourneau), run in Chinquapin Parish, La., a close-knit community where people subscribe to Southern Hair magazine, compete in Miss Soybean pageants and bake cakes shaped like armadillos.

It's the late 1980s (as sound designer Jake Null reminds us with tunes by the likes of Cyndi Lauper), and Truvy's regular patrons include the town sourpuss, Ouiser (Linda High); a well-to-do widow named Clairee (Jane E. Petkofsky); and M'Lynn (Sheri S. Herren), who works at the local Mental Guidance Center. The most important customer, however, is M'Lynn's daughter, Shelby, a sweet, quietly feisty young woman who gets married at the start of the play.

As portrayed by Laura Herren (Sheri Herren's daughter in real life), Shelby is endearing - perky, quick-witted and, with her blond hair and bubblegum-colored clothing, cute enough to model for Seventeen. (Costume designer Erin Nugent came up with Shelby's skirt-and-pink-leg-warmer look and the show's other telling '80s outfits. Craig Miller designed the hair and makeup.) Shelby is the polar opposite of High's enjoyable Ouiser, who glowers and stomps around, complaining about her neighbors, her vegetable patch and the whole of high culture. ("I don't see plays because I can nap at home for free," she snarls at one point.)

For a successful businesswoman who's supposed to be the confidante of a Louisiana community, Gallagher's Truvy seems strangely lacking in charisma. But the weakest link in the production is Sheri Herren's flat, listless M'Lynn. Understatement can be a shrewd acting ploy, but Herren - who was the saving grace of Keegan productions like "The Graduate" and "A Shadow of Honor" - goes too far in this direction.

The limpness of her M'Lynn further saps the vigor of scenes that seem desultory to begin with. A relaxed vibe may be the default setting for many beauty salons, but we need to believe that Truvy's establishment is the emotional nerve center of Chinquapin Parish, and that - even when chitchat and bickering dominate the conversation - the play's characters are acutely engaged with, and devoted to, one another. In this production of "Steel Magnolias," the qualities of urgency and intensity have been given too much of a comb-out.

Stars of 'Steel Magnolias' aren't just acting

By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sheri Herren, 50, says it's been a "healing process" for her and her daughter Laura Herren, 23, to play mother and child onstage in "Steel Magnolias." Keegan Theatre is doing Robert Harling's 1987 tragicomedy at Church Street Theatre through Aug. 21.

Set among a group of women friends in a small-town Louisiana beauty salon in the 1980s, the play has much humor but is ultimately about M'Lynn (Sheri Herren) losing her strong-minded daughter, Shelby (Laura Herren), after the newlywed disregards doctor's orders about her delicate health and becomes pregnant.

In early May, Sheri, her sister Charlene Hill, and their mother, Jean Nash Stanley, took a trip to Bermuda. Stanley, 73, fell from a golf cart and died of head injuries. Keegan Theatre is dedicating "Steel Magnolias" to Stanley, who saw all her daughter's and granddaughter's shows dating back to their high school days. She had planned to hire a limo to carry her in style to "Steel Magnolias."

Sheri Herren, a founding member of Keegan, has played more than her share of stage moms with the company. Her character M'Lynn has a grief-laden speech late in the play. In rehearsals, recalls the actress, it was "very difficult to do that last scene, even reading it. I couldn't get through it. But it got better and better. . . . The lesson of the whole play is that life goes on, and it's been a good lesson for me. Because that was the hardest part . . . because everything changes when your mom dies."

Laura Herren remembers being a child and hanging out at Keegan rehearsals in the basement of the Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Arlington, and occasionally appearing in their shows. After high school, she spent a year studying theater at the prestigious Bristol Old Vic in England. But when she came home, Laura got her bachelor's degree in biology and now plans to go into research.

It wasn't just the lure of the laboratory that took her away from the stage. It was watching her mother and other actors work. "She has the unique ability to pull from her soul and lose herself in her character," says Laura of her mother. "I think that was one of the reasons I stopped acting, because I saw how good other people were at it, and how passionate they were about it, and I could never get to that point."

Mother and daughter will share the stage for a few weeks, anyway. And Laura says some of M'Lynn's comic nagging of Shelby early in the play definitely rings a personal bell.

"There are several lines that she [Sheri] has during the show, when I heard the tone it rang true in my ear, and it built up this anxiety in me, because I recognized it. I was just like, oh, Mom!"