IF YOU GO
What: A comedy-drama about six women who hang out in a small Louisiana beauty shop
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through May 12
Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples
Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.com
Something else: The downtown parking garage fills up quickly during season.
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NAPLES — The Naples Players take a drive through the Deep South to close their season, visiting Chinquapin Parish and the ladies of Truvy's Beauty Shop in "Steel Magnolias." While the show retains the humorous punch that made the treasured film a delight, creative choices weigh poorly on the night.
Robert Harling wrote "Steel Magnolias" as tribute and therapy after the death of his own sister Susan. The play follows six female friends who gather at a small-town Louisiana beauty shop for gossip, friendship and more. Julia Roberts received her first Oscar nomination for playing Shelby in the 1989 film. Cultural Park Theatre in Cape Coral produced a version in October 2009.
Here, Kathleen Gravatt (M'Lynn Eatenton), Jessica Walck (Shelby Eatenton Latcherie), Erin Laughlin (Truvy Jones), Ann Hoover (Ouiser Boudreaux), Carol Fox (Clairee Belcher) and Lucy Harris (Annelle Dupuy-Desoto) make up the six ladies that inhabit Truvy's.
Director Paul Graffy obviously hopes to make a bold statement with this show. His top-notch acting ensemble draws from the best of the local amateur talent pool. He adds the full-force of the Naples Players creative team and a popular, comedic, easy-to-digest script. His message gets garbled on the journey from stage to audience though.
Graffy's recent directorial efforts - many featuring the same cast members in "Steel Magnolias" - include "Later Life," "Crazy Mary" and "Regrets Only." These sharply written plays, all set in the Northeast, dissect WASP culture; Chinquapin Parish couldn't be more different.
Design, directing and creative choices seem to suggest that Graffy wants his audience to view this quintessentially Southern play through an entirely different set of eyes. Except for the dialogue and some wandering accents, there's almost nothing to suggest either Louisiana or the South about the production.
The show feels directionless and adrift in every sense of the word. None of the creative choices - set, costumes, hair, lighting - match the tone of the piece or even each other. Graffy's ensemble never feels cohesive or displays much chemistry with each other or as a group. The gang at Truvy's should feel like a family - and Graffy's gang of six, even after spending weeks of rehearsal together - never does.
Devotees of the film will find much to love. Laughlin reprises all the best of beauty operator Truvy's one-liners ("...there's so much static electricity in here I pick up everything except boys and money.") Most of Harling's script made it into the film verbatim - and indeed, Fox's "take a whack at Ouiser" line from Clairee never fails to get a laugh.
Ever-reliable Walck brings a burst of life (and blush and bashful pink) as Shelby, sparring with Gravatt's complicated mother M'Lynn. Hoover comes closest to creating a vivid character out of hard-charging Ouiser, giving the lines the same bitter spin that Shirley MacLaine did, but putting her own stamp on the role.
But acting alone can't save the show. The ladies have their lines down cold and each dispenses the iconic zingers with reliable zeal, but Graffy never finds the extra gear that gives "Steel Magnolias" its heart.
While the quips get laughs, the charm that Harling wanted to impart feels gone. There's no life or interaction in the show - and there's almost no sense of joy in any of the scenes. Often, it can feel like six different actresses in six different plays talking to the audience instead of to each other and taking us along for the ride.
What's missing is any sense of movement or action. Graffy's blocking - the art of moving people from place to place on the stage - feels inert. His actors plant in one chair, talk through a scene, move to another, wash, rinse, repeat. Even Gravatt's major moment, when her M'Lynn talks about Shelby's operation, feels leaden, as if she's talking to statues.
As a Southerner raised two hours from the play's fictional setting (and intimately familiar with the world these characters should inhabit), many of the creative choices feel slightly off kilter. After a while, the sour notes start to overwhelm and distract from the play itself. Most glaringly, even the northernmost parishes of Louisiana get true snow just once a decade, yet a video backdrop shows deep drifts during a Christmas scene.
Shari Brousseau's hairstyles are hit and miss; some don't always feel appropriate for the period or the character. Walck's Shelby gets a lovely soft updo for her wedding preparations; Laughlin deftly prepares it on stage. But the hairstyle for Fox's grand dame Clairee resembles a sleek modern bob, not what a 1980s grandmother and small-town politician's wife would have worn.
Rick Foreman's pretty, if bland, costumes seem targeted to individual characters - not working as a cohesive whole to tell a story. None of the clothes seem to fit the actors well nor feel especially vibrant, even against the set's neutral color palette. Only with Walck's Shelby did he try to add a dollop of personality with the plastic salon capes and aprons. There, the signature pink feels appropriate and adds sauciness.
While animal print might have been an 80s thing, it leaps off the stage. Slathering leopard on Laughlin's Truvy in nearly every scene, even something as tiny as a hair bow worn on the over-the-top blonde white-trash tangle on her head, compounds the issue.
Matt Flynn's grand two-level set, complete with dropped ceiling, succeeds in making the stage feel more intimate. Yet, the elegant stone, wainscoting and latticework creation could not feel less like the "enclosed garage" it is supposed to represent if it tried.
The work is beautiful, but it feels in some ways like the mansion set from "Rumors," with some salon equipment, beauty shop chairs and a nail station helicoptered in. Truvy's very Southern, very girlish beauty box should make the characters - and the audience - feel like home. This vast, sterile space decorated in taupe, tan and cream resembles a furniture showroom instead of a cozy place where intimate secrets are shared and gal pals talk about babies, husbands, track lighting and the Miss Merry Christmas pageant scandal.
In opting for a two-level set, Graffy and Flynn make the stage look smaller, but create another problem. A wide strip at stage front that holds two barber chairs and the nail station winds up being where most of the conversations occur. With the action trapped in this alleyway, the play suddenly feels static and confined with the cast disconnected and strung out along the front of the stage. Actresses also clatter going up and down the steps.
Another major, unrelated, problem during Wednesday's opening night seemed to be sound issues. Multiple audience members frequently (and loudly) repeated dialogue for their hard-of-hearing friends throughout the theater.
"Steel Magnolias" offers up some lovely blossoms for audiences looking to relive memories of an iconic movie. While the creative vision might not be exactly what you expect, six talented actresses make Truvy's a comical delight to inhabit.