‘Steel Magnolias’ retains it humor and charm

January 10, 2020

L-R Lari White, Suzanne Stark, Deb Wims, Morgan Jackson & Katy Francis – Courtesy of Beef & Boards. Used with permission.

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.

L-R Diane Kondrat & Lari White. Courtesy of Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre. Used with permission.

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.

L-R Kay Francis & Suzanne Stark. Courtesy of Beef & Boards. Used with permission.

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.

photo: Josh Humble

About Tom

Journalist, producer, director, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, arts administrator, TV contributor, actor, model, writer and lyricist, Tom Alvarez has had an extensive career in media and the fine arts and continues to be an enthusiastic and devoted fan of both. His passion and unique background grant him insight, access and perspective to cover, promote and review the arts in Indianapolis, Central Indiana and beyond. Follow him on social media @tomalvarezartswriter and @tomalvarez1.

Alvarez has been writing about theatre, dance, music, cinema and visual arts for 40 years. His work has appeared in the Indianapolis Star, NUVO, Indianapolis Monthly, Arts Indiana, Unite Magazine, Dance Magazine, NOTE Magazine, and Examiner.com, among many other print and online platforms. A former contributor to Across Indiana on WFYI-TV, he currently has a regular performing arts segment on WISH-TV’s Life. Style. Live!

A principal of Klein & Alvarez Productions, LLC, Alvarez co-created “Calder, The Musical” and is the managing director of Magic Thread Cabaret. As an actor-model, he has appeared in numerous TV and print ads and is represented by the Helen Wells Agency and Heyman Talent Artists Agency.

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