THEATRE JACKSONVILLE REVIEW
A DUAL CRITICS REVIEW BY DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
The beloved Theatre Jacksonville opened the popular Southern comedy/drama “Steel Magnolias” on April 21, which will remain on stage through May 7, 2017. The theatre is located at 2030 San Marco Boulevard; call 904 396-4425 or visit theatrejax.com for additional information and reservations.
This play was the only one ever written by Robert Harding and was based on real-life experiences. The play debuted Off-Broadway 1987, where it ran for almost 1,200 performances. The story found a wider audience after a film adaptation was released in 1989, starring Sally Field and Julia Roberts. Both the play and the film have remained popular throughout the states and garnered fame abroad as well; the play has reportedly been translated into seventeen languages.
Why so popular? There are several reasons. Family dramas are theatre’s bread and butter. The play has roles for six women, and none for males, which is a rarity (although from time to time, adaptations featuring an all-male cast have been produced). And for the most part, the show is very funny, filled with provocative one-liners and snappy retorts.
The play is an ensemble piece set in a small town in Louisiana, in Truvy’s Beauty Salon. Truvy is a knowledgeable and skilled beautician, and is portrayed Amy Noel Canning, who has appeared on local stages in a number of roles in the past. She is an accomplished director as well, and recently directed TJ’s production of “Pride and Prejudice.”
Annelle (Chelsae Baxley) is a young woman, quiet and withdrawn, who is hoping Truvy will hire her as her assistant. She has a big problem, as the man she recently married has left her after taking her car and all her money. She eagerly accepts the job when offered, and promises Truvy that “my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair.”
The day the play opens is an important one, as Shelby, daughter of M’Lynn is preparing for her wedding. M’Lynn is portrayed by Kelley Norman, who has taught English at Baker County High School for over thirty-five years, and has also supported theatre as a member of the creative team for the school’s drama program and the Baker County Community Theatre. Her casting as Shelby’s mother is perfect; she is the real-life mother of Sara Beth Gerard-Summers, the actress who portrays Shelby.
Ms. Gerard-Summers is also a teacher in Baker County and has been very active on Jacksonville stages. She was recently in ABET’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” played one of the leads in TJ’S musical “9 to 5,” and also appeared as Inga in “Young Frankenstein at Player by the Sea.“ Her performance in the demanding role of Shelby is superb; she is excited about her wedding and eager to show her mother that she can make independent decisions but has a medical condition that threatens her future.
Two wealthy older women complete this cast. One is a happy widow, whose deceased husband once served as the town’s mayor; she has recently become the owner of a local radio station. Gloria Ware appears as Clairee, a confident stylish dresser who launches her own share of one-liner zingers. Ms. Ware made her Jacksonville debut several years ago in TJ’s production of “Hilda’s Garden.” Of note, she has the unique distinction of winning two Pelican Awards in the same season, for her portrayal of Lady Bird Johnson in “All the Way” and Gladys Calhoun in the 2016 summer musical “Memphis.”
The final character who makes her way to Truvy’s is Ouiser (Brooks Anne Meierdierks) who presents herself as brusque, cynical, and tyrannical, but has a well-hidden heart of gold. Brooks recently brought tears to our eyes for the painful realism of her role in the 5 & Dime’s production of “Night Mother.” In “Magnolias” she brings us tears of laughter with her appearance and marvelous one-liners like “I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”
Director Lee Hamby is very much in demand and he has an outstanding cast. Just watch the way they react to one another, smile, or look away. This is ensemble acting of great quality, a directorial skill Hamby is noted for. The costumes are also by Hamby and reflect the colorful styles of the early 1980s.
We have become more and more impressed by the talents of Technical Director Tim Watson, who did the lighting and scenic design. Truvy’s salon is gorgeous and complete down to the last detail.
Additional production team members included: Hair Design (Tamara Nelson, Salon 1763), Assistant Technical Director (Brady Corum), Graphic Designer (Jon Scherf), Sound Design (Michael Ursua), Stage Manager (Mackenzie Geers), Assistant Stage Manager (Ronnie Haynes), Properties (Mackenzie Geers, Michelle Simkulet, Lee Hamby), Light Board Operator (Mark Rubens), Sound Board Operator (Patrick Sorrells).
While the play’s title suggests that the characters can be both as delicate as the magnolia flower and as tough as steel, we won’t reveal the ending. Plan on spending two hours with the feisty, opinionated, and often very funny characters who are portrayed in this excellent production of what has become a theatre classic.