On Stage

Southern Comfort

Getting real with Steel Magnolias

“If you’re bothered by the smell of hairspray, you’re going to want to avoid sitting in certain sections of the audience,” my plus-one and I were told by an usher as we made our way into the Mount Baker Theatre’s intimate Walton Theatre for a viewing of Steel Magnolias, one of the three productions showing through mid-August as part of the theater’s seventh Summer Rep season.

He wasn’t kidding. Within the first 60 seconds of the play—which takes place entirely in Truvy’s Beauty Salon in the small town of Chinquapin, Louisiana in the 1980s—the aerosol was being sprayed with reckless abandon.

Although we were sitting far enough away so that the fumes didn’t reach us, those sitting near the danger zone looked amused rather than alarmed by the energetic beautification that was going on at the hands of the salon’s namesake, Truvy, who was played with perfect southern charm by area actress Kathleen Sasnett.

To those of us sitting a few rows away from the fray, the no-holds-barred use of the hair product added another layer of realism to the story of a disparate group of women who gather at their favorite salon on a regular basis to gossip, share stories about their husbands and boyfriends and, when needed, step up to the plate to help each other overcome life’s many obstacles.

The whole play, in fact, rang true. Truvy and her new-to-town assistant Annelle (Emily Nash), really were styling the hair of patrons such as Clairee (Terry Sacks), Shelby (Crystal J. O’Brien), M’Lynn (Teri Grimes), and Ouiser (Sheila Goodwin). There was actual water coming out of the pipes of the hair-washing station, and the bangs that were teased higher than was proper were really, well, up there.

But, of course, the important ingredient that helped the play make the transition from page to stage was the way the actresses made it come alive. From Goodwin’s portrayal of the irascible Ouiser (pronounced “Weezer”) to Grimes’ flawless execution of a woman who’s afraid to lose her daughter—and does—to O’Brien’s depiction of a young woman who wants nothing more than to be a “normal” wife and mother, the women involved in this particular rendition of Steel Magnolias did much more than memorize lines and repeat them by rote; they inhabited their characters, and it showed.

While part of the credit surely goes to guest director Amy Attaway—herself a Southern belle—it’s clear the seasoned actresses put their all into making the play a success. Their accents were spot-on, and when they laughed and cried together, those emotions transferred directly to those of us watching the action from the sidelines.

During intermission, my date had informed me that Grimes had also played the role of Shelby’s long-suffering mother at a Bellingham Theatre Guild production of the play, and had posited that perhaps the women playing the characters of Ouiser and Clairee could’ve been switched in this production.

But as we wiped our eyes and got to our feet with the rest of the audience for a standing ovation following the final moments of Steel Magnolias, she grabbed my arm as she yelled to be heard above the din.

“I take it back,” she bellowed, wiping her eyes one more time for good measure. “Everyone was perfect! Just perfect!”

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