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The Arts
April 26-May 2, 2006

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'Steel Magnolias'

Photograph by Dana Grover
Salon Culture: Gina Meredith (left), Kezia Radke (middle) and Estelle Piper dish the dirt in 'Steel Magnolias.'

Flower Power

Northside delves into small-town Louisiana in 'Steel Magnolias'

By Marianne Messina

ROBERT HARLING has set his play Steel Magnolias in women's country, a beauty salon where, according to M'Lynn (Estelle Piper), a man would never set foot. So naturally, the main event is a wedding, and the dialogue runs along the lines of M'Lynn and her daughter Shelby (Gina Meredith) arguing over Shelby's wedding colors. "Pink and pink," M'Lynn laments, later claiming that "the sanctuary looks like it's been hosed down with Pepto Bismol." "Blush and bashful," Shelby corrects.

Above the hair dryers, counters overrun with styling supplies and walls of head shots looking perfectly unlike anyone who enters or leaves the place, the slatted apex of the wall in this Northside Theatre Company set, designed by Richard T. Orlando, reminds us that we are in a garage. Truvy's enclosed carport, to be exact, in 1980s Chinquapin Parish, La. At first, it seems we're in for a parlor-type comedy where intrigue and humor come from small-town scheming, deceiving and backstabbing. Partly for this reason, the sniping between M'Lynn and Shelby takes on a darker tone than it probably should. But when Truvy's newly hired assistant, Annelle (Lecia Doss), reveals "her past" (the most likely source for scandal), the women mobilize to help with moral support and a spare room.

"We enjoy bein' nice to each other—there's nothin' else to do in this town," says Truvy (Kezia Radke). That Truvy overlooks the scheming and backstabbing options signals a shift and settles the play into a story about how good people negotiate life's curve balls. Harling's benign humor resides almost entirely in his characters' turns of phrase or in the quirkiness of small-town protocol. Hairstylist Truvy drawls out some of the best and most memorable women's room adages: "Time marches on; eventually, we discover it's marchin' across our face." Radke makes it sound like resigned wisdom.

In long red, high-top hair, Radke plays the plus-size hairstylist as settled and earthy—not so witty/perky (as, say, Dolly Parton in the film version), but probably more true. It's hard to set aside the tension first established between Shelby and her micromanaging mom, even though later on, Piper's endearing M'Lynn shows that mom's protectionism is powered by love. This disjunction between initial and later impressions feels like a loose end, but one could argue that it emphasizes how a loved one's death is realistically fraught with such loose ends.

Almost all of the salsa in this play comes from Ouiser (Lillian Bogovich). "I'm not crazy," Ouiser claims, "I've just been in a bad mood for 40 years." Bogovich's Ouiser is just poised and uppity enough to give depression and cynicism a lift and, in doing so, remain the woman they'd all love to strangle. She snidely pokes fun at M'Lynn's husband, "He's such a gentleman, I'll bet he takes the dishes out of the sink before he pees in it." Ouiser is on every good Baptist's prayer list, and Bogovich plays the cynical Southerner like a Brooklyn barkeep and makes it work.

Northside's production manages warmth without the saccharine. So we see simple people facing the world together, not by performing heroic acts but by giving what they're good at. And props should go to Lisa Fisher's costumes, which made sure that each hair style—Annelle's shaggy hair and wide head bands—and outfit—Ouiser's leopard prints and Shelby's pinks—reflected the character wearing it.

<Steel Magnolias, a Northside Theater Production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through May 14 at Northside, 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $12-$15. (408.288.7820)

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