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Genesian Theatre: Steel Magnolias - Review by Lucy Giles

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Steel Magnolias is a play that’s been around since the 1980’s so to say that it’s been performed to death is an understatement. Ironically though, Genesian Theatre Company’s version was the first time I had watched this play at all. It’s a story about 6 women in a hair salon, discussing various topics that affected women of that time. When you read the Director’s note at the beginning of the program, you can tell that this show is definitely a much loved one by them. In Ali Bendall’s words themselves “(Steel Magnolias) celebrates the mundane, the normality of friendship, but does so with such candor, generosity and good humour that we can’t help but feel lifted up by the resilience of these ladies and the love they show one another even in their darkest moments.” Ms Bendall, I agree whole-heartedly.

This cast is well practiced, skilled and have made some very interesting choices that sucked me in left, right and centre. The bright pink set creates a feminine air, totally appropriate for the time and place of the show, and the lighting changes are creative and sharp. Every time there’s a scene change, the actors moved around the set, sinking us into the realm of the play and creating a realistic sense that time is going by. The lights change the colour of the walls, creating a neat almost psychedelic effect, and a radio voice over comes over the speakers, informing us of things we need to know. For lack of a better word, it’s awesome to see!

Sandra Bass brings to life the character of Ouiser, who is a headstrong old bitty who complains more in this show than any other character. She is a loveable, miserable lady with snarkiness up the wahzoo. Without intending to sound harsh here, Bass was cast perfectly. Her physicality and vocal choices were very natural as she portrayed the snarky character with a delightful comedic presence. She’s an interesting juxtaposition to some of the other character, as some seemed foe-friendly and Ouiser is just snide. Bass is incredibly entertaining to watch, which is great since the clothing choices that were made for her were somewhat off-putting. Bass commands the scene with her kooky characteristics however, so you never focus on Ouisers bad fashion sense.

Ouiser is partnered up with Clairee who is portrayed by Sharron Olivier. Clairee is a wealthy widow who is in everybody’s business. She’s the sarcastic one in the group and pokes fun at little things other people cry over. Olivier brings a wonderful sophistication to the role, gracefully gliding from seat to seat on stage and giving cheeky knowingly smiles. She echoes the same level of snarkiness as Ouiser but has a higher level of elegance. Also, similarly to how I hated Ouiser’s costumes choices. I LOVED Clairee’s. Olivier came out in a purple dress that I just died over and the actor pulled it off so incredibly well (in other words, she’s hot). I’m not sure if this was an intentional move by costume designer Susan Carveth or not, but well done.

While this show sheds light on all characters, the implied protagonist is Shelby who is played by Heather Tleige. Shelby has the most interesting character arch in this show and Tleige plays with the light and dark emotions Shelby has with tenacity. Shelby is a level-headed, beautiful girl with a generous spirit who fights with her mum, sometimes just because she wants to, and every now and then will suffer from seizures of diabetic episodes. Tleige switches the mood from comedy and serious moments beautifully and her disposition makes you root for her to succeed. Tleige is believable, adorable and relatable. Shelby is paralleled by her mother M’Lynn, played by Georgia Britt. M’Lynn is over-protective of her daughter and needs to always have a firm grasp on reality. While I’m not convinced that Britt is old enough to be a mother, she had a grounded air to her choices that portrayed great maternal instincts. Britt is strong, persistent, and attentive towards Shelby which made for a wonderful mother/daughter chemistry to be created and brings a beautiful vulnerability to the role that was enchanting to view. My favourite moment had to be when Shelby gives her some big news and there’s a big pause in the room. You can see what M’Lynn is feeling on her face as she goes through about 7 different emotions in that framed silence. Britt is a generous actor and I am very grateful to have watched her perform.

Annelle is one of the characters that we get introduced to first scene of this play and she is depicted by Julia Grace. She starts as a shy, soft-spoken person and evolves into a bible-loving Christian who wears her heart on her sleeve. I was pretty annoyed at this character at the beginning at the show but she grew on me as the show progressed. Grace brings an innocent feel to the character, leaning into Annelle’s naivety, but I do think she’s portrays her a lot smarter than I believe the character is. I mean, I didn’t believe that she was dumb enough to marry a criminal who steals all of her money. With that being said, Annelle’s story is told through her interactions rather than her words, and Grace ebs and flows between dialogue with ease and honesty. She is a master of restraint as she slowly increases the characters confidence from scene to scene. By the end, you’re almost proud of Annelle as she feels assured enough to crack a joke with her new community of women.

Last, but not least, is Truvy who owns the beauty salon all the women visit and she is brought to life by the gorgeous Molly Haddon. Truvy is the centrepoint of the whole group, often giving advice to her customers and friends in the form of country sayings and creating beautiful looking hair styles. Haddon does a great job at towing that line between parental and non-parental in Truvy’s character. She’s empathetic, considerate and hospitable and Haddon brings a direct mindfulness to the character. This is necessary as though the other characters are somewhat flighty in their own rights, Truvy is the lighthouse that they can depend on. Is also makes sense that Haddon was cast as the hairdresser as her hair is *chefs kiss* goals.

This is a play of what a play ought to be: engaging, entertaining and engrossing. The aim of any play is to engross your audience slowly into the realm of the play so they’re invested in the relationships and situations that are being performed. We have the delight of being invited into the show as the performers have the delight of inviting us. Steel Magnolias is an incredibly well written story about sisterhood and the Genesian company has depicted this story with intelligent judgements with an incredible sense of space. The conversational dialogue is snappy and dynamic, and this truly impressive group of thespians have taken in the show with persistence and perseverance. Well done GTC.

4.5 out of 5 baby’s breath twigs, gunshots and plays of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.

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