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Theater review: ‘Steel Magnolias’ at the Rubicon Theatre

August 30, 2011 |  1:14 pm

Steel Magnolias Production 4
Consider it a given that productions of “Steel Magnolias” have been springing up like wildflowers since Robert Harling’s comedy-drama debuted in 1987, so Rubicon Theatre’s revival is hardly charting unfamiliar territory. That being said, it’s hard to imagine the piece having more impact, thanks to a finely tuned ensemble who bring heartfelt camaraderie-amid-adversity to the six memorably vivid beauty shop regulars in a sleepy Louisiana parish. 

The reasons for the play’s enduring popularity are evident here. Its razor-sharp comic banter — delivered with impeccable timing and lilting Southern inflections — is inseparable from its heartbreaking story, based on the author’s real-life family tragedy. In both aspects, the difference between mawkish sentimentality and authentic feeling is an all-important distinction well understood by director Jenny Sullivan, whose facility for strong women-centered material coaxes honest, believable performances from her cast. 

Presiding over the group with a den mother’s open-hearted ferocity is beautician Truvy (Clarinda Ross, parlaying a long history with the play into the production’s assured comic anchor). 

In Truvy’s salon sanctuary (detailed to tacky scenic perfection by Thomas S. Giamario), conflicts are set aside with a tolerance and decency that stand in sharp contrast to today’s polarized dialectics — an implicit call for restoring civility and compassion seems to be the revival’s raison d’être.

The struggle for identity and independence figures prominently in each character. Town belle and bride-to-be Shelby (Amy Handelman), whose struggle with diabetes drives the play’s emotional arc, is a sympathetic portrait of determination to lead a normal life despite the objections of her primly stoic mom (Stephanie Zimbalist). Bonnie Franklin and Von Rae Wood bring affectionately cranky bickering to the self-protective town curmudgeon and the mayor’s widow searching for a reason to keep living. 

To anyone familiar with past productions or the film version of "Steel Magnolias," these renditions will compare favorably. The pleasant surprise here is Angela Goethals’ delightfully quirky interpretation of Truvy’s new salon assistant, finding integrity and off-kilter wisdom in a role that could easily come across as a wacky dim bulb, and rounding out a production that fully honors the resilience invoked by the play’s title.

-- Philip Brandes

“Steel Magnolias,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 18. $39-$59. (805) 667-2900 or Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Photo: From left, Clarinda Ross, Stephanie Zimbalist, Angela Goethals, Bonnie Franklin and Von Rae Wood. Credit: James Scolari.