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.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Robert Harling. Directed by Mark A. Rhea; assistant director, Colin Smith; lighting design, Baron Pugh; properties, Katrina Wiskup and Carol Baker. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Aug. 21 at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW.
Call 703-892-0202 or visit www.keegantheatre.com.