Stephen Hayter reviews Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias
by Robert Harling
performed by Waterbeach Community Players
directed by Julie Petrucci

Here's the thing. Julie Petrucci is the NODA Regional Representative for Area 4 South. I am the NODA Regional Representative for Area 4 North. Julie Petrucci directed this production and it would be unethical, not to mention against NODA guidelines, if Mrs Petrucci reviewed her own show, so she asked me to do it. Now the plot thickens as I declare my conflict of interest. I like Julie Petrucci very much, I respect her work as a NODA Rep and her substantial contribution to the Eastern Region Committee, but I have never seen a production she has been involved with. I am more than capable of being impartial and objective about the work of a friend, but anyone reading this needs to know the back-story. It gets worse... Julie did not know when she asked me, that 'Steel Magnolias' is my favourite play! I have made a point of seeing it whenever possible and I know most of the lines. So, as I took my (very uncomfortable) seat at Waterbeach Community Primary School, I could tell she was nervous, and me? I was shaking like a leaf!

If you don't know the play, I am confident that you would bet your bottom dollar that it was written by a woman. The story is set in a single room which is Truvy Jones' Beauty Shop in Chinquapin, Louisiana. It deals with four chunks of the lives of six women: four wealthy but ageing friends; an employee in the salon and one of the four's daughters. We are shown their deep friendship as they interact through a wedding, Christmas, the birth of child and finally the death of the daughter. It is, in parts, desperately sad, but mostly riotously funny and always poignant. The lines are so insightful and so beautifully written it is a play that all genders can relate to. I believe that Robert Harling's masterpiece surpasses 'Stepping Out' and even the mighty 'Calendar Girls', which came as a surprise to me because it is so very American and so very deep south.

The set (Technical Director and Designer, Mark Easterfield, with the construction managed by Mark Easterfield and Chris Shinn and a long list of other contributors) was amazing. None of the mistakes I have seen in the sets of previous productions were evident. Running water, real hair dryers and a superb window stage left really brought the whole piece to life. Costumes (Joy Sinclair and Eleanor Tippler) were unspectacular but perfectly appropriate. Complimentary hair, wigs and make-up were all fine even if Shelby's short wig seemed determined to leave the stage without Shelby! Sound was not amplified and there was no doubt that every audience member heard every single word. This is the very embodiment of an ensemble piece with the supporting cast consisting only of Chris Shinn as the Radio DJ. The play opens with Annelle Dupuy - Desoto being given the job in Truvy's Beauty Shop and, above all the other parts, we see more development with this character than any other. Vicki Green looked just a little less experienced than the rest of those on stage which is by no means a criticism as those "others" looked almost of a professional standard. Miss Green was confident with her lines and always looked to be in the right place at the right time. DeeDee Doke as Truvy Jones has an awful lot of the dialogue and often in small chunks spread around the page. Mrs Doke delivered a delightful characterisation and she looked comfortable with the difficult dialogue.

All the characters in this piece are important and Clairee is the least interesting on stage, but has the biggest life outside the salon. It is crucially important not to overplay this part and Rosie Wilson was outstanding. In the long sections when she had nothing to say she reacted well and was always on hand to deliver her line no matter how long it had been since her last one. A delicate role handled with style! In complete contrast, the part of Ouiser is (in my opinion) the comedy role and Caroline Blair was perfection, getting every laugh bar one from the script. I say bar one as "Steve and the Strip lighting" made me laugh out loud but the room was just not with me! Their fault not hers. When you care about a play as I care about this one, you do get fixed ideas about how each part should be played and Mrs Blair was for me, the very embodiment of Ouiser.

M'Lynn is such a pivotal role. She comments and observes and then, the whole play hangs on her final tragic monologue. As Christine Easterfield delivered it, and the tears ran down my cheeks, the auditorium was so quiet all I could hear was my heart breaking! A sublime piece of acting which turned a great production into a masterpiece.

Those in the far reaches of Area 4 South will not be familiar with the construction of my reviews, so a brief explanation is required. I always save the penultimate paragraph for that performer who has stood out from the rest, and in a cast of this quality, that is quite an achievement. Jessica Hamill is (I understand) fairly new to Waterbeach but Wow! What an actress. A captivating performance and an impeccable southern accent that did not slip at any time during the play. Her face never stopped working and when Shelby slips into a diabetic coma she took a full 2 minutes slowly drifting away and another minute being revived. She commanded the stage whenever she was on it and demonstrated the optimism, pragmatism and resignation of a privileged southern princess who had everything but her health. I knew she was going to die, but those who didn't will have fallen in love with her and will have been devastated. A remarkable performance from a young lady with a massive amateur career in front of her.

My hat is completely off to Director, Julie Petrucci, for a piece of theatrical genius. The technical direction in this production was of a standard I have not seen very often. You realise early on that there is a theoretical salon mirror in front of the performers, between them and the audience, and I simply marvelled at the accuracy of the angles as the characters communicated with each other through the reflection. The blocking had a clinical precision to it and every line from every performer was delivered to and from the perfect location. You simply could not fault it! In fact any criticism of this production was difficult and all I can come up with is the seating! 3 days later and I still haven't straightened up. However, the tickets at this venue were £8 and let me tell you my friends this was a whole lot of performance for so little money. This assignment was a major worry to me, but the review was easy to write and I guess JP and I will still be friends after she reads it. I know it is always hard for a NODA Rep to nominate their own production, let alone give it an award, but it is difficult to imagine that in her wider travels Mrs Petrucci will see many plays better than this.

Stephen P E Hayter
NODA East, Assistant Regional Representative District 4 North

Waterbeach Theatre Company
All performances at
Waterbeach School
Cambridge CB25 9JU

Phone: 01223 880023

Discover us on:

Buy tickets from:
Phone: 01223 880023

WTC is a member of the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA)

Read our Data Privacy
policy here.