Wilted Magnolias

Wilted Magnolias

A favorite Blockbuster rental, though well-cast, falls disappointingly short on Broadway

You don’t just want to like the new production of “Steel Magnolias,” you want to adore it. With its nearly flawless script, plum parts for powerful actresses and an affection bred by familiarity, you ease into your seat at the Lyceum Theatre, anticipating nothing but stellar performances for the next two-plus hours.

Instead, sadly, you get an uneven show that has moments of brilliance but never really catches fire. Sure, the jokes land—every one of them. But that’s in the writing; Robert Harling’s jokes almost can’t miss no matter who’s delivering them, which is probably why this show is a favorite of community theaters.

And to be fair, even some of the poignant moments will make you tear up.

Still, this production just doesn’t hang together, and in the end it’s clear that what’s missing from Jason Moore’s predictable direction is a sense of the life at the Beauty Spot—where the play is set. If the script isn’t ramping up for a joke or a tear, the energy on stage goes dead as the characters watch one another’s drama but never seem to connect to it, simply moving from set piece to set piece. It is enjoyable because the play is a gem, but with a couple of exceptions, there is nothing remarkable about this production—and for Broadway, you can’t be faulted for wanting something more.

Given the cast, one would have expected to get it, but it’s hard not to feel that Moore has largely left the actresses to their own devices. Delta Burke as Truvy should be the heart and soul of this community, but her performance is inconsistent and at times incongruous to the point that it’s impossible to know who Truvy is. Is she an Earth mother? A Southern belle? The quintessential pillar of strength peppered with comic perspective and a solid grip on reality? The script gives Truvy moments of revelation, but Burke glosses over them. Moore even gives her a wonderful opening moment—being hilariously hairsprayed within an inch of her life by Anelle, a job applicant, and then turned to the audience—but the moment dies as Burke just slides into the play and through the rest of the part. It’s the moment that must set the tone for the entire evening, but it falls flat.

Of the other actors Rebecca Gayheart as Shelby, the young woman whose marriage, childbirth and death frame the play, is quite good. She manages to play the subtle layers of the character with an easy grace. Christine Ebersol as Selby’s mother, M’Lynn, is at her best in her scenes with Gayheart. The two work wonderfully together and they bring to the interactions a sense of family history that’s palpable. Marsha Mason plays the perennially cranky Ouiser with some flair, but it’s a two-dimensional performance that never goes much beneath the surface—even at the moment when she is willing to break out of her 40-year bad mood.

Fortunately, however, these women share the stage with Frances Sternhagen and Lily Rabe. Sternhagen as Clairee is gives a rich, organic performance that shines. Her easy style, sparkling humor and pleasure at life make her one consistently believable and charming. She never needs to play the part; she simply inhabits it.

Rabe plays Anelle, the outsider who becomes part of the group over time. Hers is the best performance in this production. Anelle is at times awkward, struggling and downright ridiculous as she seeks to find herself after being dealt a dose of bad luck. Rabe makes the character vibrantly alive, and even when she is not the focus of a scene, she is a presence. Her performance ultimately shifts the balance of the play and makes it about the search for belonging and solid footing in a constantly and unpredictably changing world. Anelle is onstage almost throughout the play, and Rabe’s sensitive performance is the highlight of the evening.

Anna Louizos’ set is a wonderful carport-turned-salon with a precise sense of 1980s style. The hair design by Bobby H. Grayson is right on the money, as are the costumes by David Murin.

It’s hard to imagine any production of this play failing utterly given the strength of the story and the script. At the same time, it’s unfortunate to get just a lick and a promise when you were ready for a whole new do.