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Set in fictional Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, “Steel Magnolias” is a humor-filled and poignant exploration of the power of female friendship, resilience, and the strength found in a chosen family. Written by Robert Harling, the original play premiered off-Broadway in 1987 with a Broadway debut in 2005, and the beloved movie by the same name was released in 1989.

The audience is first greeted with gentle springtime birdsong as they find their seats in Hurst Theater and can feast their eyes on the brilliantly detailed set, Truvy’s Beauty Salon, warmly and invitingly designed by John McDermontt.

As the lights come up, we are first introduced to Truvy (played by the shimmering Aurelia Wiliams), the vivacious eponymous salon owner and her freshly hired assistant, the demure and sweet outsider Annelle (Sophia Gray, whose comedic timing was superb) whose whirlwind hiring sets the stage for all that is about to unfold. Clairee (Terry Burrell) breezes into the salon, followed by Shelby (Claire Saunders), her mother M’lynn (Mary Bacon), and finally the curmudgeonly Ousier (Valerie Wright) to round out the all-female cast.

Over two years in the sanctuary of a beauty salon, the interactions between these six women range from friendly banter and laughter to tears of grief. Each distinct character is played with such emotional depth driving every conversation and moment that the two hours and thirty minutes of stage time fly by in a blink. The relationship between Williams’ Truvy and Gray’s Annelle evolves from strangers to a tender, heartwarming mother-daughter bond. Similarly, Saudner’s Shelby and Bacon’s M’lynn mother-daughter relationship is especially accurate in Shelby’s very believable eye-roll at her mother’s mothering around her preparations for her wedding.

Burrell’s Clariee and Wright’s Ousier deliver hilariously rich banter between two lifelong friends with pointed one-liners shared with such wit the audience was crying with laughter. In a move to lighten a moment of grief, Clairee grabs Ousier, shoving her toward M’lynn declaring, “Half of Chinquapin Parish would give their eye teeth to take a whack at Ouiser!”

The counterbalance of humor with seriousness reaches its zenith in the latter part of the play with M’lynn’s heartbreak. Mary Bacon delivers an emotional performance as a grief-stricken mother, electrifying the stage and captivating the audience members, who lean forward in their seats, holding their breath alongside the stillness of the characters on stage. In theater, it’s moments like these that captivate a person so deeply and draw them into a moment so authentic it’s easy to forget that this scene is not unfolding outside of a theater setting.

Stunningly directed by Jenn Thompson (returning from last year’s gorgeously directed “Doubt”), “Steel Magnolias” is a beautiful tribute to the indomitable human spirit, especially when bolstered with the strength of true friendship. While set in a particular time and place, these themes and the truth of the power of love continue to resonate in both deeply personal and universally relatable ways. 

An absolutely beautiful beginning to Theatre Aspen’s 41st Season.




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