‘Steel Magnolias’ for and about community

As Madonna’s “Material Girl” blares over the speakers at Cyrano’s Off Center Playhouse, I’m seated next to a long row of women cradling glasses of white wine and gabbing with each other. It is 10 minutes past the time the Brown Eyed Girls Theater Company’s production of “Steel Magnolias” was supposed to start, and it’s become clear that the audience is going to contribute to the evening’s atmosphere as much as any of the play’s characters might.

“Steel Magnolias,” written by Robert Harling is set entirely in Truvy’s Beauty Salon, a converted carport in Chinquapin Parish, La.

The salon serves as a center of community for the women of the neighborhood, including Truvy, her assistant Annelle, M’Lynn Eatenton and her daughter, Shelby, the widow Clairee and the caustic divorcee Ouiser Budreau.

The eclectic collection of personalities provides the raw ingredients for conversations ranging from wedding plans and track lighting to motherhood and death. It is a play filled with witty and memorable dialog.

BEGTC’s production of “Steel Magnolias” suffers from hurried pacing. The cast often doesn’t allow the audience’s laughter to die down before rushing on to the next line. The southern accents are inconsistent in some instances and border on British in others. What isn’t missing from this cast is energy.

Bernie Blaine, as Clairee, is confident and entertaining, pulling most of the weight in the verbal sparring between her character and Gerrie Koerber’s Ouiser. As the play went on, Blaine settled into her role and became funnier.

Truvy, played by co-producer Rachel Gregory, also revs up every scene. The first major laugh of the evening comes as Gregory proudly proclaims Truvy’s business philosophy: “There’s no such thing as natural beauty!”

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Laura Carpenter does well as the meek Annelle, but she easily gets lost in the mix of more vocal characters.

The central play’s central relationship is between M’Lynn, played by Krista Schwarting, and Shelby played by Brenda Joyner. While both actresses give strong performances, they fail to create the intense chemistry of a mother-daughter relationship. The humorous side of their interaction is much stronger than the dramatic side.

It is difficult to avoid comparisons between this production and the 1989 film, starring Sally Field and Julia Roberts. But unlike the film, BEGTC’s production offers what “Magnolias” is really about—community.

“Steel Magnolias” at Cyrano’s offers an evening of southern warmth complete with aerosol hairspray, country music and plenty of wine-induced chatter from rows of ladies fanning themselves with programs.

“Steel Magnolias” continues at Cyrano’s Off Center Playhouse through Aug. 30, Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets range from $10 to $15. For more information, call 274-2599.