The most powerful dramas come with a healthy dose of comedy. And I might add the most powerful dramas have at least as many laughs as tears. I saw Fried Green Tomatoes with my mom and my grandma when I was ten. Forrest Gump, My Girl, Big Fish, How to Make An American Quilt, these are all dramatic stories. Tearjerkers. And yet… every one of them had long, satisfying stretches of laugh-out-loud humor.

Steel Magnolias joins that club. I saw it with my dad at Playcrafter’s Barn Theater yesterday. A play by Robert Harling, which was adapted into a movie in 1989 with Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, and Julia Roberts, this is a story of southern women in a beauty salon. They talk about their husbands. Their children. Their exes. And yes, there are several scenes where they talk about what buffoons men are. But I shy away from categorizing this as an exclusively girls’ night play. Though it is a play for women, the cast is engaging, interesting, emotional, quick-witted, and funny… to the point where I wasn’t even thinking about the fact this was an all-woman cast and dealing with woman’s issues. Directed by Donna Weeks, this play presented the women’s struggles as basic human issues.

The play opens with Annelle (Jaclyn Marta) getting trained by Truvy (Chris Sander-Ring) at her beauty salon. She does very well with hair. But the overall maintenance of the salon comes with a learning curve. Belly laughs ensue.

Truvy’s clientele include Shelby (Leslie Munson), Shelby’s mom, M’Lynn (Jackie Patterson), Ouiser (sounds like Weezer, and played by Patti Flaherty), and Clairee (Susan Perrin-Salak).

M-Lynn is a loving, doting mother who is helping her daughter get ready for her wedding to Jackson.

I am happy I caught a large portion of Steel Magnolias on basic cable a few years ago. This filled in the blanks. I remember Jackson was played by Dylan McDermott in the film. He had a nice car, and he was a nice husband and lawyer. That gave me the visual I needed as I listened to Shelby talk about the never-seen husband, who represented the life she had always desired. Only thing missing for them was a child.

The problem is, Shelby suffers from diabetes. And the doctors have advised against her becoming pregnant, as her body probably could not handle pregnancy. This is a topic that has been covered by Playcrafter’s shows before, ranging from The O’Conner Girls to Blues for an Alabama Sky. And in tackling the issue of women’s health and having a family, they do so  with clarity and very good actors who are up to the task. Issues get explored from all sides.

When attempting to adopt falls through, M’Lynn is terrified for Shelby when she does become pregnant. Shelby, for her part, is very brave. Leslie Munson is a fresh breath of air for the stage. She knows that she’s prone to dramatic blood sugar drops, seizures, failing kidneys, and a dependency on dialysis. She knows that having a child will be the challenge of her life. Was it right for her to get pregnant? If you asked Shelby, she would say she was living her life’s dream. And that life is about risks. If you asked her mother, she’d say that she wants only the best for her daughter, and supporting her daughter in the means she chooses to start a family means letting her daughter grow up. Completely.

And the fact Jackie Patterson found the right balance between helicopter parent and the supportive at all costs mom is one of the major pillars of this production. This was actually a model family. And a model town. They stuck by each other. Again, I thought of How to Make an American Quilt and Fried Green Tomatoes. Multiple generations. Men who were good, men who were scoundrels. But they were secondary to the story. And that wasn’t a bad thing. Providing a unique and necessary support system, as they would desperately need each other at times.

It was very interesting to see the role that humor continued to play even as tragedy permeates the third act. The chemistry between Perrin-Sallak and Flaherty was palpable. Clairee was a mayor’s widow. And so she was a person of status in Chinquapin, Louisiana. So is Ouisee. And they can’t stand each other. So a fight breaks out at an opportune moment when the sadness gets thick.

So again, the actresses hit the right balance. Jackie Patterson was real as life as the best mother Shelby could ever ask for. Leslie Munson didn’t take her character’s plight lightly. But she showed that pain and humor are inextricable. And she set up as many jokes as she delivered.

So long story short, Steel Magnolias is for everyone. I was given the wrong impression from a Married With Children episode in the 1990’s, when Al Bundy is horrified to have to watch Steel Magnolias instead of a football game. It is a wise and worldly piece of work. The joke that Clairee gets off about how they could never make it through Terms of Endearent shows that it is wryly self-aware of its status as a female-driven ensemble comedic drama. But it being self-knowing of its genre did not make it a satire. No. It was a tribute.

Steel Magnolias was excellent!

It runs this weekend at Playcrafter’s Barn. It deserves all the strong word of mouth that it can get.


Greg O'Neill is a Spanish teacher at Lewistown Community High School. A native of Rock Island, he currently resides between there and Lewistown. He has been onstage at Quad City Music Guild, Playcrafter's Barn Theatre, Richmond Hill Theatre, and Genesius Guild. He got his start at St. Joseph's Catholic Church when he appeared in Tales of Wonder at the age of eleven. He enjoys movies, theatre, books, baseball, and writing stories.