Powerhouse cast elevates GCP’s ‘Steel Magnolias’ to must-see community theater
I know that Fresno is a long, long way from Natchitoches, La., but I like to think there’s a Truvy Jones or two brandishing her hair dryer out there somewhere in the 559 area code. Like the stylist in “Steel Magnolias,” you could find this local Truvy tucked away somewhere in a home salon built for her by her husband out of a converted carport. Inside, she passes along the latest neighborhood gossip, offers a sounding board to her trusted customers, dispenses judiciously doled out advice, and — you can’t forget — also styles hair tall enough to need a building permit.
Pictured at top: Chlorissa Prothro, Laurie Pessano and Emily Kearns in ‘Steel Magnolias.’ Photo: Good Company Players
But wait. There is a local Truvy, and you don’t have to make an appointment for a set and a rinse to spend time in her company. Valerie Munoz plays Truvy (the Dolly Parton character from the movie), and she’s delightful. With a smooth, acerbic sweetness, like lemonade that’s just a bit too tart, Munoz helps set the accomplished tone of the new Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre. I’ve seen a fair amount of Munoz over the years in GCP shows, and this is my favorite performance from her.
Then again, she’s in good company. (Pun sort of not intended.) The six women in this stellar production includes four local theater veterans who have, ahem, decades of performing experience between them. And it shows. So does director Denise Graziani’s affinity for the material.
For those whose only exposure to “Steel Magnolias” is the 1989 movie, the play is a tighter and more intimate affair, and I’ve always liked it more in terms of underlying structure. In the play, we don’t meet any of the men in the lives of the woman who frequent Truvy’s shop. (But we certainly hear a lot about them.) Everything is filtered through the eyes of the women, from hilarity to sorrow, and in the process, the salon starts to feel like a safe, warm cocoon — a refuge from the craziness of the outside world.
The narratives of both play and movie draw on playwright Robert Harling’s autobiographical experiences living in a small Southern town, which adds a strong authenticity to the proceedings. At the center is Shelby (played by a very good Chlorissa Prothro, a Fresno State theater student), the young bride-to-be, whose delicacy and stubborn strength capture the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” sensibility of the play’s title. Shelby’s serious health problems — she has Type 1 diabetes — are revealed in an early scene, but there’s such radiance in the character that you have no doubt she can overcome such limitations.
Laurie Pessano is wonderful as M’Lynn, Shelby’s put-together mother, who is realizing that her headstrong daughter is very much a chip off the old block. Elizabeth Fiester, as the rock-solid Clairee, and Tessa Cavalletto, as the eccentric Ousier, are perfectly cast as M’Lynn’s contemporaries. Each of them scrap at the other with the fondness and exasperation of two people who have known each other for so long that any genuine revelation or surprise from the other is earth-shattering. Thanks to Graziani’s graceful direction, the voices of the four older characters in the show interact in almost musical fashion, from Fiester’s lower baritone intonations to Pessano’s crisp soprano creating a tuneful quartet.
Rounding out the cast is another excellent Fresno State theater student, Emilie Kearns as Annelle Dupuy, whose newcomer character grows from timid to self-confident — and even a little overconfident — as she becomes more ensconced in her neighborhood church.
Each actor brings a special treat to the table: the way that Fiester lands each of her laugh lines with the precision of a master carpenter; Cavalletto’s blustery entrances, which have all the drama of a rough airport landing; Pessano’s powerful monologue about love and loss.
Through it all, a key takeaway for me is the play’s overall optimism, especially when you consider the larger arc of the narrative. Part of this is because “Steel Magnolias” is like an experience in cultural tourism in which you focus on the best and most colorful aspects of a place. (David Pierce’s cheery set and Teresa A. Castillo’s costumes help draw us into that world.) Three of the four older characters seem to be rather wealthy, and you get the feeling that Shelby’s new in-laws — while they might be depicted as a bit of a rowdy mess — are also pretty high up there on the social ladder. This is a warm and comfy South where mention of race, income inequality and other hot-button issues aren’t a factor.
The other reason for the play’s optimism is more profound: It’s about lifelong friendships. Not all of us have the privilege of being able to claim such relationships, but for many, it seems like the ideal. (It wasn’t that long ago that most people lived their entire lives within a tiny geographic circle, mostly with people they knew since childhood.) Perhaps it’s a core part of human behavior to seek out members of our “tribe.”
All that said, the strength of this production goes beyond the play itself. I think it’s my favorite “Steel Magnolias” ever, and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen at the 2nd Space Theatre in a while. You can thank six stellar women (and their director) for that. I realize they probably don’t have their hair cut at the same salon in Fresno. But if they do, I like to think of it as just like Truvy’s. Now if you could only get an appointment.