Perhaps the most telling moment of the first Broadway production of Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias comes immediately as the curtain goes up. Lily Rabe, as Annelle, the new hairdresser in town, is putting every bit of physical and mental concentration she has into applying exactly the right amount of hair spray onto the high-reaching locks of the yet unrevealed Delta Burke, playing salon-owner Truvy. This is vital and serious business as she carefully studies the surface of the woman's do, spraying even smidgens in an attempt to achieve styling perfection.
The night I attended, the laughter of recognition was predominantly female, but it needn't be. This could just as well be a ballplayer trying to apply just the right amount of pine tar to his bat, a backyard barbecuer coating his ribs with the precise amount of tangy sauce, or a weekend mechanic doing whatever it is people do with their cars. Because you don't need to be female, southern or have any sense of personal style to get what's going on in Steel Magnolias. This is a play about camaraderie. It's about same-gender bonding that occurs over an activity. While we watch these Louisiana women gather every weekend to gossip, trade recipes and get their hair done, there could very well be a parallel play about their husbands huddled around the TV watching football, drinking beer and arguing over what to put on the pizza.
There's a bit of a plot here. A small thread involving a personal tragedy and minor subplots that are better discovered than described, but this isn't a play about the story. What's more important is watching a group of people form a support system among themselves. A sort of voluntary family that goes deeper than most families because you get to choose its members. There's much that goes unexplained. Months pass between scenes and characters change their looks and have major personal events occur which are only mentioned in passing. Part of the play's fun is picking up on these minor differences.
This is one of those all-star productions where five of the six cast members get entrance applause, but director Jason Moore has assembled an ensemble that charms together. Burke and Rabe are joined by Marsha Mason as the cranky Ouiser, Rebecca Gayheart as nervous newlywed Shelby and Christine Ebersole as her harried mother, M'Lynn. All are funny and empathetic, but Broadway favorite Frances Sternhagen naturally stands out with her delightfully chirpy presence.
Costume designer David Murin lets us remember some of the tackier and more garish styles of the 1980's while treating the characters with dignity. I especially enjoyed Sternhagen's lime green suit, Rabe's peach mini-dress and a couple of designer sweat suits for Mason. Anna Louizos' set also straddles the line between campy and homey.
For the most part, Steel Magnolias is simply light fluff, but it's good light fluff, a heck of a lot of fun and will most likely send you home with a smile. And perhaps wiping away a tear or two.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Lily Rabe and Christine Ebersole
Bottom: Frances Sternhagan and Delta Burke