Smithies as Strong as Steel:  A Review of “Steel Magnolias”

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Photo Courtesy of | Steel Magnolias, a play about friendship, family and loss, opened on Oct. 21.

Eleanor Igwe ’17
Contributing Writer

Students and local community members packed the seats of Mendenhall’s main theater on the penultimate night of Smith College’s staging of Robert Harlow’s hit play “Steel Magnolias.” Despite the play having been written and debuted in 1987, the universality of its themes about family, female friendship and loss have led to its being staged in countless countries and to its adaptation into two feature-length films. The Smith theatre brought to its adaptation first-class design, stellar acting and technical expertise that made the whole performance flow.

The first feature that jumped out at audience members when the play started was the costumes. Created by Theresa Miles ’18, the costume designs consisted of a colorful assortment of bright ’80s colors and patterns. These included a fabulous array of pink outfits, one of the main character’s favorite colors. The costume choices played well against the backdrop of an exquisitely designed set (with working shampoo basins) by Serena Yau ’18 with lighting design by Chase Trumbull ’14.

Emily Wilson ’17 brought a meticulous and fitting sound design to the production using a radio announcer greeting that everyone in the audience enjoyed. The show was wonderfully directed by Jennifer Sturley ‘17J, while the actors Caitlyn Conley, Jill Cannon ‘19J, Alyson Daniels ’17, Gracie Elliott ’19, Kimberly Salditt-Poulin and Divya Schlesinger ’18, brought admirable spirit and flawless accents (as far as I can tell) to their roles as small-town Louisianan women.

The story follows five women in the small town of Chinquapin. There’s Truvy, the hairdresser who owns the beauty shop that most of the play takes place in; Annelle, who’s new in town and in an iffy relationship; Clairee, a small-socialite; M’Lynn and Shelby, a mother and daughter; and Ouiser, a misanthrope who loves her dog more than any person. While all five women have their own struggles and plot points, the inspiration for the focus on the mother and daughter is based on the playwright’s own experience of losing his diabetic sister to an unsuccessful kidney transplant.

The play starts on Shelby’s wedding day and progresses to Shelby’s announcement of her pregnancy and to M’Lynn’s grieving over her loss. From bickering about wedding hairdos to conflict about the wisdom of a decision to undertake a medically risky pregnancy, the simultaneous tension and affection between mother and daughter is apparent and relatable to many people’s experiences. There was silence in the house as M’Lynn wailed over the loss of her daughter and it was clear that the audience was moved.

It’s also important to note that “Steel Magnolias” is a play not only about friendship, but about women coming together to support each other in difficult situations staged at a women’s college with women in almost all the roles, both creative and technical. The characters allude to boyfriends, husbands and sons, but solely women enter the beauty shop. A play about a women’s space is an apt production to put on at Smith and other women’s colleges and women-centered spaces, as we continue to hash out what it means to be a woman and the importance of female-exclusive spaces.

With the innovation, creativity and passion that the Smith College theatre department clearly brings to every show, I’m amazed that up until this point, I’d only seen two playreadings, and never a fully staged play. For anyone else on the Smith College campus or in the local community who’s in the same position, I want to insist that the Smith College theatre is not an experience to miss.

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