Steel Magnolias


I had seen the old movie version of Steel Magnolias back in 1989 and remembered it as a slightly sappy-sweet southern drama with some funny moments and a dramatic ending. Gallaudet University Theatre’s production let me know that my memory was right on target.  This month, with the magnolia trees on campus in full bloom, director Cheryl Lundquist brought an equally colorful version of Robert Harling’s screenplay to the Gallaudet University Gilbert C. Eastman Studio Theatre.  The story is centered on five women who come together at a beauty salon and whose friendships endure through happiness and tragedy.

The movie was full of big name stars, and I was afraid I would be relatively let down by a student production, but I found the performances very satisfying.  I had seen Camille Jeter-Lorello (Truvy) on stage years ago when she performed with the National Theatre of the Deaf, Carrie Suggs (Ouiser) more recently in Gallaudet University Theatre’s Noises Off, and Sara Moore (Annelle) most recently in last fall’s rousing rendition of Lysistrata.  I knew I could expect good things from them, and they were each indeed a pleasure to watch on the stage.

I was taken by surprise by the others though—and in a good way.  April Jacobs’s comedic timing gave Clairee a sense of humor that, with Suggs’s Ouiser, balanced the more maudlin parts of the story. Nicole Strom, whom I’ve only seen in minor parts (last spring’s Alice in Wonderland), played Shelby with major confidence and spirit. Trisha Waddell took me by surprise with her portrayal of M’Lynn, not only because I hadn’t seen her act on stage before but also with her powerful delivery of M’Lynn’s last scenes, which brought me to tears.

The play was over two hours, not including the intermission, but after a slightly slow beginning, I was not aware of the time passing.  However, I was curious about other theatregoers’ impressions.  Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) student Laurie Monahan was wowed by the realistic beauty salon set that included real barber chairs and other furniture.  “The quality of the actors and set totally impressed me.  I felt like I was there in a beauty salon where all of the workers were deaf,” she remarked.  However Monahan wished that the theatre had sold water and snacks at the intermission, like they do at RIT/National Technical Institute for the Deaf plays.  “The profits go to support a worthy cause.”

Claira Oberrender, a senior who has seen multiple Gallaudet productions, also commented on the set.  “I loved the small set,” she said. “It really creates a sense of intimacy between the characters and the audience. I don’t think M’Lynn’s final scene would be as heartbreaking if it was done on a bigger stage, such as Elstad [Auditorium].”

But not everyone had an entirely positive reaction.  Victoria LeBlanc, a Theatre Arts major, thought certain elements “were great, especially the set design,” but had trouble with “the anachronisms—the sense of time was really confusing.”  As an example, she mentioned that ‘90s clothes and iPads didn’t mix well.  One audience member with professional experience in acting and directing thought that the addition of male characters detracted from the play’s integrity. “The script does not call for men,” he said. “To add male characters takes away from the feminine power of the show.”

Although I agree with these viewers’ criticisms, Steel Magnolias featured solid individual performances and a powerful ending scene that made this a performance worth seeing.

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