A Classic Dramedy “STEEL MAGNOLIAS” at the Alhambra


A Dual Critics Review by Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom
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Jacksonville’s Alhambra Theatre continued the year-long celebration of its fiftieth birthday by presenting another great play from the past with Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias,” which opened May 24 and will run until June 25, 2017. This show has blossomed into a classic dramedy since its debut in 1987, remaining popular in the US and many other countries throughout the world. A film adaptation was released in 1989.

For this choice, the Alhambra, which opened in 1967, has drawn from its history. In 1969, the theatre staged “Barefoot in the Park,” featuring Dawn Wells, a popular actress from TV’s Gilligan’s Island, as the headliner. Wells is back in Jacksonville, and appears in the hilariously funny role of the cantankerous and outspoken Ouiser in this outstanding production. Since starring as Mary Ann in Gilligan’s Island, she has remained busy in theatrical, film, and television roles. The full house audience on gala night was filled with fans who cheered and applauded when she appeared.   

(Note: if you want to see Gilligan’s Island reruns, you can find them on Jacksonville’s MyTV channel from time to time.)

The play is set in a beauty salon in a small town in Louisiana. The ensemble cast is a sisterhood of talented performers!  We first meet the owner of the shop, the easy-going Truvy portrayed by Alhambra veteran Patti Eyler, who reprises a role she did in South Florida several years ago. She has just hired Annelle (Lexi Langs) as a shop assistant. Annelle is troubled; the husband she recently married has fled, leaving her without funds or transportation. While initially withdrawn and unsophisticated, she is soon thriving and exploring new interests with the help of Truvy and her patrons.

The play opens on a Saturday morning, which is when several of Truvy’s regulars come to chat and have their hair done. This day is particularly important as M’Lynn’s daughter Shelby is preparing for her wedding. M’lynn is played by Lisa Valdini, one of the Alhambra’s favorite actresses, who displays her comedic talents, mixed with compassion and tenderness, in this role.

Rebecca Lea Chisholm as Shelby delivers a persuasive portrait of a charming young woman who is excited about her marriage and wants more than anything to have a child of her own, despite the fact that she has a serious medical problem which may cause complications.   

Joining Ouiser in the cast as one of the two older (and wealthy) women in the cast is Cheryl Horne, who is making her debut at the Alhambra. She plays Clairee, a widow who was previously married to the town’s mayor; she is a football fan and owner of the local radio station.

The direction and casting by Director/Producer Tod Booth holds all the elements of this play together. The action takes place in the salon over a period of three years and includes a lot of timeless homespun humor. And although the second act contains some serious moments, the play is a charmer, with lively and heartfelt performances.

As is our policy, we will not reveal the ending but it is a compelling evening of theatre. If laughter is the best medicine for a longer life, then “Steel Magnolias” will surely add a decade to your life. Curious about the title? It suggests that the characters can be both as delicate as a magnolia flower and as tough as steel.

Set Designers Dave Dionne and Ian Black have created a salon so realistic you may want to jump on stage and have your hair done. The Costume Crew provided the colorful fashions we expected these ladies to be wearing. 

Coming up next is “Annie.” Director Booth has auditioned 110 children for this musical, which will run from June 28 – August 13. Dining choices will include a special menu for kids. For additional information and tickets, call 904-641-1212 or visit alhambrajax.com.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.