Call it a case of adding insult to injury that the six Southern belles in “Steel Magnolias” are played by New York-based actresses. Any one of the roles could have been cast two or three times over with local actresses who might have felt more real, despite the impressive resumes of the New York-based cast.
The bigger question about the Alliance Theatre’s production is why artistic director Susan V. Booth chose to produce such a tired old cliché of a play in the first place. As if you didn’t already know, Robert Harling’s trite comedy/sappy tearjerker involves a garrulous group of women who congregate at a rural Louisiana beauty parlor – although you may have never seen it performed on a set that’s quite as elaborate as Michael Yeargan’s design for the Alliance.
Directed by the renowned Judith Ivey (a two-time Tony-winning actress herself), there’s nothing too terribly wrong with the production, exactly, but ultimately you expect something fresher and more challenging from Atlanta’s most prominent theater company.
For all of its pithy banter and hokey truisms, Harling’s 1987 script seems to have grown stale with age (if not overexposure). And nowhere does the Alliance show, in particular, ring any more false than when the characters eventually start talking about the importance of culture and the power of theater to broaden one’s horizons.
Deirdre Lovejoy (as the wise-cracking beautician Truvy) and Becky Ann Baker (as the wealthy widow Clairee) fare best in the ensemble, which is to say they are the most believable and least stereotypical. Mary Pat Gleason (as the cantankerous grouch Ouiser) is fairly funny, although she’s prone to turning away from the others to deliver her punch lines directly to the audience.
Zoe Winters (as the ill-fated young bride Shelby) registers her character’s vivaciousness more easily than her vulnerability. Apparently compensating for the rest of the highly energized cast, Beth Broderick (as her mild-mannered mother M’Lynn) downplays her part to a degree that’s simply bland.
As for Sarah Stiles (as Truvy’s dimwitted assistant Annelle), her take on her role is almost grotesquely exaggerated beyond any reason. Still, hers is the only performance that undergoes a genuine transition over the course of the show – and, in the end, its singularly affecting moment belongs to her, imparting admittedly unlikely words of wisdom about life and death.
At this late date, even dressed up with expensive production values and a bunch of proven New York co-stars, the Alliance’s “Steel Magnolias” finally seems to contradict what Truvy assures Annelle about cutting hair, and how technique, form and content improve with experience.
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Through Nov. 9. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $25-$68. The Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000. www.alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: Less affecting than affected.
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