The playbill for Little Lake Theatre Company’s Production of Steel Magnolias proclaims that the show is “a Little Lake favorite,” making it a great selection for their 70th anniversary season. Director Lora Oxenreiter and her cast’s clear affection for Robert Harling’s script and their characters shows in the care they bring to the final production.
Steel Magnolias is the story of the friendship between a group of women, the staff and clientele of a beauty salon in rural Louisiana in the 80s. Truvy, portrayed by Kauleen Cloutier, is the proprietor of the shop and the heart of the group. Annelle (Italia Nowicki in her third performance of the role), a newcomer to the town and the shop, changes over the course of the show from a timid outsider to a part of the family. Mother and daughter M’Lynn (Carol Ann Schussler) and Shelby (Ellen Emery) provide the dramatic core of the story – which I won’t spoil for those of you who, like me, had never seen the movie. Clairee (Joyce Miller), the town’s former first lady, and her curmudgeonly friend Ouiser (Lynnelle Goins) are also regulars at the shop. Goins, a former student in Little Lake’s “I Can Do That” acting class, delivers a strong acting debut with some of the best laugh lines in the show.
Given that the show consists of six close friends in a small space for two hours, the chemistry among the cast is very important. Fortunately for the Little Lake production, the actors mesh perfectly on stage. At the talkback after the show, they said they bonded almost immediately after rehearsals started. This helps sell the sense of community and friendship between them, and their reactions when things get sad later on. The tagline from the old Steel Magnolias trailer was “The funniest movie that will make you cry.” And it just might. The cast is adept at handling both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the play. Cloutier and Nowicki are especially effective at expressing the surrogate mother-daughter bond that develops between Truvy and Annelle. Although the action takes place entirely in one room, the dialogue does a good job of establishing the town outside the shop, and the relevant off-screen characters in our protagonists’ lives.
Little Lake Theatre has an in-the-round setup, with seating and tables ringing the stage. The set itself is open enough that every section is visible from all angles and the tables, seats, and couches that make up the perimeter of the salon almost blend into the theater’s seating. For Steel Magnolias, in which the characters are very often seated in the salon, this layout presents a challenge in making sure their backs aren’t turned to any one section of the audience for a long period of time. Oxenreiter addressed this by making good use of swivel chairs to shift subtly between angles. While I did notice once or twice that a conversation was happening with both parties facing away from me, the sound is set up well enough that everything is still audible. And the fact that I only noticed it a couple of times is a testament to how effectively attention is paid to making sure the cast is addressing different parts of the audience throughout the performance.
While we’re on the topic of sound. If the costumes don’t remind you that the play is set in the ‘80s, the music will. Shelby introduces a radio into the salon, and a few classic jams pop up in the background or between acts.
One fun feature of the Little Lake experience is their menu of specialty desserts and drinks. In addition to their regular selection, they have added a few items that relate to the show – an Armadillo Cake (red velvet with grey icing, as served at Shelby’s wedding reception) and the Blush and Bashful, a very pink cocktail referencing her wedding colors. Make sure you check the menu at the back of the playbill to order for before the show, or to have them brought to your seat at intermission.
Steel Magnolias brings a talented cast to a great venue. If you want to have a good night out, maybe cry a little, AND have some cake, you will do well here. The show runs through August 18 at Little Lake Theatre in Canonsburg. For tickets and more information click here.