It is uplifting to witness the strength of women as I did in the UMBC TheatreCOM production of the play Steel Magnolias in the Fine Arts Recital Hall. The play was directed by Ana Petricel, a senior biology and health administration and public policy double major. The screenwriting was developed by playwright Robert Harling and based on the true lives of the women in his life.
The story of the play has been on Broadway and the widescreen for 30 years. Even so, the TheatreCOM production breathes new life into the piece with their vigorous acting, tenacious chemistry, beautiful set design and fantastic lighting.
Steel Magnolias is centered on the lives of six Southern women, Truvy (Anna Courtade), Annelle (Victoria Graham), Clairee (Emma Gilligan), Shelby (Sophie Koch), M’lynn (Willa Murphy) and Ouiser (Sophie Shippe), who meet up in a beauty salon manned by Truvy and Annelle. The scenes we see mark momentous hallmarks for particularly the character Shelby and her mother M’lynn. Through Shelby’s wedding, pregnancy, dialysis and later death, the women all meet in the beauty salon for beauty, jokes, love and friendship. The play’s driving force is the friendship among the six women. The ties among them hold fast even in times of tragedy.
The play’s cast and production expertly emulated the emotions and themes that the story centers on. The lighting (by Corey Goulden Naitove and Natalie Matthews) of the production helped denote the motivations and dreams of the characters, such as when the spotlight shined on Shelby as she announced her pregnancy. The lighting on Shelby throughout the play demonstrated how treasured her presence and life is.
Although the audience sees her in nearly every scene, we get the feeling that it is occasional, thanks to the lighting. The set design (by Kirsten Jolly and Kaylee Arnold) of the play was beautiful, particularly the floral fence and vanity mirror. The set skillfully portrayed the close-knit environment of the beauty salon.
The costume design (by Megan Hromek) was particularly deft as well. You could tell the personalities of the characters by their attire. Notably, M’lynn often wore buttoned shirts to symbolize how closed off she can be concerning her home and work life. Annelle’s conservative clothes complemented her religious fervor and reserved demeanor as the new girl. Clairee’s classy wardrobe was well suited to her dignified way of speaking. Ouiser’s fashion told the audience of her often dour attitude before she even spoke, and Shelby’s attire helped implement her as the heart of the story with her tendency towards bright colors, like pink.
The acting by the six performers of the play was magnificent and electrifying. The chemistry among the six and between the pairs, Truvy and Annelle, M’lynn and Shelby and Clairee and Ouiser was immense and deftly drawn. The verbal battles between Clairee and Ouiser and notably M’lynn’s words after Shelby’s death were memorable and poignant moments of the play. Willa Murphy displayed the emotions of M’Lynn in a cathartic way, emotionally ending her character’s arc. The performances by these young actors playing characters at further stages in life were lively and skillful. The cast played characters who felt like real people.
As the director, Ana Petricel said, this is “a story about you and me.” This story portrays how ties with others can strengthen you even when it feels like all is lost. It is excellent to see a story like this represented by women.