I have stated it before, but it bears repeating, that an occupational hazard of reviewing theatre is seeing the same play or musical multiple times. However, whenever I encounter a work I have seen previously, I always judge it on its own merits. Such is the case with 2020 season-opener “Steel Magnolias,” now playing at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre until Feb. 2. Of all the productions I have seen, this one stood out for the rich acting and comedic performances of its all-female cast. Expertly directed by James Hesselman, the Beef & Boards’ ensemble stars Kay Francis, Morgan Jackson, Diane Kondrat, Susanne Stark, Lari White, and Deb Wims. I saw the show Saturday.
The stage play (a film version was released in 1989) itself has enjoyed a good shelf life since it premiered on Broadway in 1987. It was written by Robert Harling and based on his experience with his sister’s death. Set in the fictional northwestern Louisiana parish of Chinquapin, the dramedy takes place in Truvy’s, a beauty parlor and regular gathering place for the area’s women. Although the play’s main storyline centers on Shelby, her mother M’Lynn and Shelby’s medical problems, the underlying friendship between them and four other women is prominent throughout the play.
The Beef & Boards ensemble was a well-oiled machine, with all the actors playing against one another and adept at timing and delivering the many one-liners and zingers in Harling’s gently funny script with dialogue that rings true. Though there was no credit given in the program for a dialogue coach, the cast members deserve kudos for their authentic-sounding Southern accents, which were uniformly consistent.
Standing out for her performance was former Central Indiana resident Diane Kondrat, who now lives in Portland, Oregon. Playing Shelby’s overprotective mother M’Lynn, she turned in a finely nuanced performance as a loving mom, who on the outside appears strong and collective, but is really fragile on the inside. During a pivotal scene late in the play when M’Lynn reveals her true vulnerability and the depth of her trauma over a loss, a hush fell over the house. Such was the power and intensity of Kondrat’s performance
Pitch perfect as playful Clairee, the smart-mouthed widow of the mayor and owner of the local radio station, was Beef & Boards veteran Susanne Stark.
Kay Francis put her own effective stamp on the iconic role of crotchety Ouiser, who seems perpetually angry, bitter and speaks poorly of the other women, yet still considers them her closest friends.
With its 80s cultural references to Princess Di, Hawaii Five-O and Jaclyn Smith, Harling’s script still sparkles with realistic, snappy dialogue. And the fact that he based the characters on people he grew up with in Louisiana gives the play its genuineness. Making it still timely and relevant are its universal themes of love, family, friendship, female empowerment, and dealing with chronic illness.
As is normally the case for most Beef & Boards production, the production elements including Michael Layton’s realistic beauty parlor set, Ryan Koharchik’s lighting, Jill Kelly Howe’s costumes, Daniel Hesselbrock’s sound design and Tim Hunt’s wig design, are all superlative.
For those like me who saw the film and previous productions of “Steel Magnolias” and those experiencing it for the first time, this Beef & Boards interpretation will feel like visiting old friends or discovering new ones. Not only uplifting, it reinforces so many values we all hold true, especially how precious, yet fleeting, are the ties that bind us all.
For tickets and information about “Steel Magnolias,” visit beefandboards.com.