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STEEL MAGNOLIAS (article first published : 2002-12-4)

I must admit that when Greg King told me that he had chosen Steel Magnolias as his festive season production, I had grave reservations. Strong play, good track record, made into a movie and all that but it has a very tearful section when the most endearing character dies.

But then, death is part of life and life goes on. The problem comes when loved ones left behind have to face that fact and be strong in the knowledge that while mourning and grief must take their rightful place, the human spirit is strong and resilient. And there are always close friends standing by to help pick up the pieces.

Having now seen the show, I unconditionally withdraw my reservations. Greg was right. Steel Magnolias is perfect for the festive season. It’s all about friendship, resilience, love, and the determination of a young woman to live as normal a life as she can, despite the dangers imposed by her health problems.

Robert Harling’s characters are impeccably drawn and what a brilliant script director and cast have as a vehicle. He captures the spunkiness of this Southern American town and the spirit of its women. The sad section is achingly beautiful but most of the time the action rattles along at a spanking and very humorous rate. The dialogue bounces off each character like laser light and on opening night the cast was perfectly rehearsed and prepared.

Greg extracts from his actresses the best performances I’ve seen from them all to date, the biggest surprise being Carol Trench who up until now we’ve only known on the cabaret circuit. She plays the overeager and rather frumpy Annelle to perfection, particularly when the young woman is “born again” and prone to sending up fervent prayers at the slightest encouragement.

Annelle works as assistant to beautician Truvy: A goodhearted soul, she’s a survivor who believes that a smile “increases your face value”. Kate Bruce handles her well and creates a believable character where it could so easily be played over the top.

Their first customer of the day is Shelby, adorably played by Olivia Borgen. She arrives armed with floral decorations for her hair, wanting to look more like Princess Grace than Jacklyn Smith. A gentle spirit, she is a diabetic with complications.

M’Lynn, played by Susan Monteregge, has a husband who hauls out his shot gun to get rid of pesky birds, two vigorous young sons and a demon of energy as a grandson. No wonder she equates her 30th wedding anniversary with Valium. Susan imbues her with a quiet firm calm and her final scene is superb, reminding us of the talent Durban has lost to Gauteng.

Then there’s Clairee, widow of a former mayor of the town. Alison Cassels impresses in this role of the ever-gracious politician’s wife who is capable of throwing in the occasional pithy remark. When the tearful scene reaches almost breaking point, she snaps the mood with a brilliant and humorous solution.

In a selection of deliciously offbeat hats, Vera Clare positively explodes onto the stage as the wonderful, forthright and spiky Ouiser whose idea of Christmas decorations is putting holly on her “Keep off the Grass” signs. She generates much of the play’s humour and handles it with her usual professional aplomb.

As I said earlier, Steel Magnolias is about friendship. When one hurts, they all hurt. The play also poses the question – do friends have a right to know everything or are there some things that should be kept strictly personal? Robert Harling suggests that close friends can feel a strong sense of betrayal if they have not been confided in where they could have given support.

Steel Magnolias runs at Kwasuka Theatre until December 21. Don’t miss it.

Performances Tuesday to Saturday at 20h00 (no shows on Sunday or Monday) with matinees on Thursday and Saturday at 15h00. Book through Greg on 083 544 2006 or Computicket on 011 340 8000 or 083 915 8000. – Caroline Smart




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