On October 20, CSArts-SGV unveiled the Acting Conservatory’s production of “Steel Magnolias.” Set in the small town of Natchitoches, Louisiana, “Steel Magnolias” explores themes of love, loss, and the strength of female companionship as experienced by a congregation of close-knit women.
The production took place at the Sierra Madre Playhouse and within only one location, a beauty parlor; however, its construction was by no means simple. The set was built by members of the Production and Design Conservatory, and no details were forgotten — every inch of the floral green wallpaper is covered end to end in a comforting disarray of curlers, creams, and shining rows of hairspray. It was a visual treat, and the essence of the 1980s permeated the hyper-saturated greens and shades of “blush and bashful.”
The same attention to color applied to the costuming. The clothing worn by each of the characters adhered accurately to their individual personalities, with great emphasis on color. I was impressed by the number of costume changes that took place — the story unfolded over the course of several months, and naturally the characters donned different outfits every scene, which worked in tandem with the audiovisual effects in enhancing the audience’s mood.
Throughout the duration of the piece, I was continually blown away by the ease at which the actresses inhabited their characters. Despite the considerable age gap between both, the casting felt natural and the interactions between the characters felt lived-in and comfortable. Conversations were easy and delivered with a skillful Southern twang, which added a playful flavor to the piece. As for the individual actresses, I was deeply impressed by their emotional range and delivery. Anise Contreras (ACT ‘19) plays M’Lynn, the timorous mother of the vivacious Shelby (Noel Tessier, ACT ‘20), who suffers from a serious form of Type 1 diabetes.
Interactions center exclusively around a beauty salon, where Melia Jost (ACT, ‘20) plays a bubbly Truvy, aided by faithful novice Annelle (Bianca Cervantes, ACT ‘22). Although comedy is well-interspersed throughout, much of the humor is derived from the snarky banter of Clairee (Averey Kennedy, ACT ‘19) and the unabashedly sharp-tongued Ouiser (Sage Saling, ACT ‘21).
Once again I was reminded that there really is something different about live theater. Movies are great, but there’s a fresh, raw sort of emotion present when you realize how temporary all of it is- chances are you won’t see the same production again, and there’s only one chance to get the scene right.
However, only when observed collectively does the production truly take flight, and I was amazed at how all aspects of the set, costuming, and audiovisual effects enhanced the performance of the actors, though one of the most unique aspects of the performance was the relative intimacy of the playhouse. The limited seating and curved stage brought the actors up close to even those in the middle to back rows where I was seated, and for the first time I was able to view the actor’s expressions in great detail, a rare occurrence for those who are generally relegated to the rear seats.
At its core, “Steel Magnolias” is a testament to female strength and adaptability, and stands as proof of the immense efforts taken by the Acting and Production and Design Conservatories. Viewers were in for a rollercoaster of humor and heartbreak, and left with a feeling of completion and the faint smell of hair spray.