Movies sometimes can make an average story look better than it is, and sometimes can make a great story look very ordinary.
Those who have seen the movie "Steel Magnolias" should not put off going to the Springfield Community Theatre because here is proof that a stage play can be more powerful than a movie.
There is only one locale: the beauty parlor. There are only four scenes. There are only six women to tell us the whole story. It is the bare story -- and what a story it is.
We first meet the owner of the beauty parlor, Truvy, a down-to-earth and very funny pillar of the women's lives, and her newly hired assistant, Annelle. Annelle's husband has been arrested, and the police have warned her that her marriage may not even be legal. Annelle is a timorous wreck, but grateful to find a job.
Into the beauty parlor comes Clairee, once the mayor's wife, a beautiful, wealthy woman with lots of style; Shelby, a young woman who suffers from diabetes, will have a child (in spite of doctors' advice against it) and who will receive a kidney from her mother when hers fail; M'Lynn, Shelby's devoted and amazing mother; and, finally, Ouiser, a lady who could stand alone as the example of eccentric southern femininity.
The characters are rich and full, and onstage -- in striking contrast to the movie, where scores of subsidiary characters were introduced, without adding to the story -- we concentrate fully on the six women without any distractions.
Given a good set, which Springfield has, all that remains is to muster a strong cast. This, happily, Springfield also has.
As Truvy, Debby Booth has warmth and a quite cheerful lack of self-consciousness, which makes her humor unique.
Mary McGowan is splendid as Annelle, whose early tremors are replaced by religious zeal, which seems a hoot, until the last scene when she suddenly, from her heart, gives special comfort to Shelby's mother.
Clairee's attitude to life -- one might even call it reckless -- is nicely realized by Nita Fraught in the final scene. She could be a little more boisterous in the first act as well.
Johnnie Riley White is properly hearty as Ouiser. In a role where limits are hard to reach, she could stretch even further.
Suzanne Connors Nepi plays Shelby. There are things that Shelby says that inadvertently hurt others. Nepi makes the mistake of thinking these lines must be delivered in that spirit, giving her interpretation a hard edge, and unintentionally reducing the stature of the role.
Marilyn Bennett plays Shelby's mother, M'lynn, and she is quite wonderful. She is the gentlest woman until the final scene, when her description of Shelby's final momemts and her cry for help from the other women are powerful and deeply affecting.
Director Sherry Follmer has done a first-rate job: costumes, hair design (quite a factor here), lighting, make-up, all serve this production faithfully.
Go to Springfield and take plenty of tissues. This is both a very funny and extremely sad play. With the help of the women, the sorrow is almost bearable. We know we are richer for having known Shelby, and have shared the anguish of those who were powerless to keep her.
Springfield Community Theatre. St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, 6320 Hanover Ave., Springfield. For tickets and information, call 703-866-6238.