Beauty in its purest form

Review by Norah Pendergast

Steel Magnolias

Watermark Theatre, North Rustico 

July 14, 2022

Performed by Gracie Finley (Clairee), Marlene Handrahan (M’Lynn), Sharleen Kalayil (Truvy), Kristena McCormack (Annelle), Risha Nanda (Shelby), Marlane O’Brien (Ouiser).

Directed by Samantha Wilson.

Written by Robert Harling. 

Supported by Cory Sincennes (set design), Julia Kim (costumes), Alison Crosby (lighting), Pat Carron (sound design), Samantha Bruce, Jeanna MacIsaac (stage managers), Barb Pineau (consultant)

The Watermark is offering two iconic plays this summer that support its claim to be “the best theatre on PEI.” Steel Magnolias, originally written for the stage, takes place entirely within the intimacy of a hair salon where the ensemble cast’s personalities flair against the backdrop of 1980s Chinquapin, Louisiana. The audience is greeted by a finely decorated, retro beauty parlor that promises all the indulgent excitement of freshly styled hair. The plot is driven by naturalistic dialogue rich with hilarious truisms and rural poetics, not unlike the lyrics of classic country songs. 

Truvy (Kalayil), the shop owner, for whom, “there is no such thing as natural beauty,” hosts this homage to femininity. Annelle (McCormack), a kind, young stylist is maternally initiated into the parish town salon’s culture of sharing each other’s highs and lows and all the irresistable gossip. Physical acting of the rituals of esthetics flows with natural constancy, propelling the lively conversation and the sharp comedic writing leaves the audience thoroughly satisfied.

Hair styles show the passage of time, life phases, popular trends, camaraderie and connection. Outside the salon the characters are inhibited by economic and family demands, their victories and failures. Away from men, the salon allows a loosening of decorum of the feminine mystique, to which the audience are voyeurs. 

It was refreshing to watch an entire play without a man setting foot on stage. Though they never make an appearance physically, amusing incompetences of men are vented. They are risk-taking buffoons or worse, but also they provide romantic fulfillment and devotion as committed companions. Steel Magnolias’ 1980s statements of feminism and femininity are dated but the story succeds as a celebration of friendship and femaleness that still rings true.

Veterans of the stage, Gracie Finley, Marlene Handrahan and Marlane O’Brien give memorable performances; Finley plays Clairee, the dignified widow of the mayor who refuses idleness in retirement and invests in becoming the boss and owner of a radio station. Handrahan’s lyrical drawl and maternal intuitions are perfect in the role of M’Lynn, the quintessential southern matriarch. O’Brien’s performance is raucously funny as the curmudgeonly Ouiser, whose bark is far worse than her bite. They are well balanced by young Kristena McCormack, who patiently responds with born again Christian idealism to the often ribald comedy of the others. Risha Nanda is flawless in the role of virtuously determined Shelby and Sharleen Kalayil as Truvy graces the stage with smooth wisdom and flattery that restores damaged hair and the egos of her patrons. 

Each character is vital to the ensemble performance. Titillating gossip and dramatic life events engross the audience and as over two hours fly by, each character has turns being the center of the action. Together they demonstrate all the functions of friendship. 

The second half of the play is more serious as the characters contend with the fragility of life and the temporality of companions who may be gone in body but who leave objects and influence and connections that endure.

Exiting into the still night of the Acadian village of North Rustico, humid perfume in the Watermark garden suspends the Louisiana climate, offering a gentle transition from the catharsis of the connection to characters and their world. 

Written after the playwright lost his sister to diabetes, I promised myself to return and bring people whom Steel Magnolias reminds me to cherish, to share the beauty of this production that will blossom for many lucky audiences this summer.