‘Steel Magnolias’ touching, poignant

“Steel Magnolias” is being presented at the Lake Superior Theater. In this photo from the left are: Jacqueline Love, Teagan Sturmer, Monica Nordeen, Lilith Kontos, Bridgette Jaakola Tellefsen and Leslie Parkkonen. (Steve McClain photo)

“Steel Magnolias” is recognized by most because of the powerful film made of it in the 80s. A story of the power and depth of female friendships and relationships, it is well served by the movie that most know, but it is so much more powerful presented live in an intimate setting like the Frazier Boathouse.

A great choice for this season at Lake Superior Theatre because of the quality of the script and the abundance of mature female talent in the Marquette theater community at this time. Denise Clark’s production of this show is a must-see if you are lucky enough to snatch up one of the few remaining tickets to this soulful dramedy.

“Steel Magnolias” takes place in Truvy Jones’ in-home beauty parlor in the small Louisiana parish of Chinquapin were the women regularly gather. It is here that they share recipes, gossip, escape the unseen men in their lives … where they can nourish themselves and their friendships unfettered by the pressures of the outside world.

As the show opens we find Truvy sitting in her own chair as newcomer Anelle is trying to pass muster, doing Truvy’s hair as an interview for a position there. Truvy hires her and the day begins.

One by one the other women enter the shop. Clairee, the wealthy widow of the former mayor, Shelby, the bride on her wedding day getting her ‘do, M’Lynn, mother of the bride, and finally Ouiser, M’Lynn’s cantankerous neighbor. They all gossip and banter and go over the wedding plans, talk of the ongoing feud between Shelby’s father Drum and Ouiser over nothing and everything, Shelby’s husband to be and his law practice and habits of hunting everything that can be hunted, Truvy’s thoughts on beauty (“There’s no such thing as natural beauty”), Annelle’s mysterious past (even though she is very young Truvy asserts “If you can achieve puberty you can achieve a past”), and Shelby’s frail health due to her diabetes.

It is revealed that “children are not possible” for Shelby. It is Shelby’s health and her relationship with her sometimes overbearing but always adoring mother that forms the core of the drama in this play.

Truvy is loud and opinionated and possessed of a heart of gold. Unlikely to let a bit of gossip slip past, but also interested in helping her fellow women as much as possible. She not only hires Annelle, but practically adopts her and installs her in the apartment over her garage.

Clairee is trying to find herself after the loss of her husband and ultimately buys the local radio station, continues in her undying support of the local football team, and discovers the wanderlust that she never knew she had, traveling to New York and Paris.

M’Lynn struggles with the fiercely independent Shelby and Shelby’s refusal to let her deteriorating health prevent her from the pursuit of her own happiness (“I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special”).

And Ouiser is, well…Ouiser. Loud, stand-offish, a true friend, full of great and telling quotes herself (“Don’t try to get on my good side, I no longer have one”), Ouiser is a complex character all her own.

Shelby’s pregnancy is both a blessing to her and the worst news possible to her mother and the rest of the women. It is impossible not to get completely engrossed in what transpires between all of the characters in this show, through the side-splitting comedy and the inevitable tears brought by the tragedy of having to deal with the death of one’s own child.

This cast has great onstage chemistry, something that can’t be faked. They obviously have a lot of love and respect for one another and it shows in their performances. It is a joy to watch. A remarkable ensemble made up of stirring individual performances.

Monica Nordeen plays Truvy. Strike that. Is Truvy onstage. One of the best actresses in the area, Ms. Nordeen delves deeper into her characters and gets all the details right. Her accent, her posture, her inflection, her expressions. It would be easy to take the character of Truvy on, watch Dolly Parton’s portrayal in the movie, parrot it and call it good. Not Ms. Nordeen’s style. She realizes that Truvy is not only the source of so many of the memorable one liners in the show, but also the finger on the pulse of all the other characters as they interact in her shop. Another excellent performance from a justifiably busy actress.

Annelle is played well by Lilith Kontos. Very young, bashful, with a murky past (“I may or may not be married”), Lilith brings a fun life to the character as she grows more comfortable with her new community of women, her newfound love of crafts, and her conversion to born again Christianity. A joy to watch her character grow and change.

Likewise, Jacqueline Love and her journey as Clairee. At first, Clairee is lost, not really knowing what to do with herself after the death of her husband of nearly 50 years. As the show progresses, Ms. Love conveys the new joys that Clairee finds as she discovers her own independent self again. Great job by another long-time veteran of the Marquette stage.

Teagan Sturmer, a newcomer to the LST stage, does a wonderful job as Shelby. You can feel the youthful resentment, rebellion, and love that she feels for her mother. She is at once strong willed and frail, a balance between what she wants and what her body will let her be. A touching performance that never gets maudlin.

Ouiser would be easy to play as a one-dimensional cartoon. A caricature. Just an old crank, nothing more. But Marquette theater newcomer (but long time veteran of the stage) Bridgette Jaakola Tellefsen fleshes out the character of Ousier. Set in her ways, trying hard to not let people know that she actually has a soft heart, Ouiser can be tough to nail. But Bridgette does it well. Even as she is complaining about Drum and how horrible a neighbor he is, her caring for all the other characters comes through.

Of special note is Leslie Parkkonen’s portrayal of M’Lynn. Leslie is known as a great vocalist, having one of the most powerful and recognizable voices in the area. And she owns the stage in her usual roles in musicals. But here, in this pivotal and serious role, she really shines. M’Lynn is a caring mom. Worships her delicate flower of a daughter. Can be a little smothering. Wants her daughter to be happy, but on M’Lynn’s terms and control. And then she ultimately has to deal with every parent’s worst nightmare, losing their child. Leslie captures every nuance of her character and turns in a very powerful performance in this role. Every moment she is onstage is real, touching, natural and felt. Bravo.

Denise Clark did a great job directing this cast. Strong script to start with, great actors to work with, and her magic touch with the ingredients make for a stirring show. Her storytelling was ably assisted by Steve McClain’s wonderful set. He captures the southern charm and tastes of the era perfectly. The small stage at LST is ideally suited to a close and intimate show like this.

To sum it all up, this show is a winner. Bring your handkerchief or tissues — you will laugh till there are tears and then cry till they make you laugh again.

I wholeheartedly recommend that you try to get one of the very few tickets left. Steel Magnolias runs Tuesday through Friday, Aug. 15-22 and Aug. 22-25 at the Frazier Boathouse. Tickets can be purchased at www.nmu.edu/tickets. If a show is sold out, you can call Lake Superior Theater at 227-7625 to book a rush ticket as they become available.

Editor’s note: Martyn Martello is a local director and actor.