Henry Lawson Theatre: Steel Magnolias - Review by Daniel Conway
Gossiping as a concept is intriguing. We all engage in it, although deep down, we acknowledge that we probably shouldn't. It's impolite, spreads misinformation, and fosters division. All these points hold true. However, one of the reasons for our aversion to gossip, as some suggest, is rooted in misogyny. Even before the digital age, gossip served as a tool for disseminating news, but controlling who knew what and how much was impossible. In an attempt to curb this, the act was stigmatized, unfairly placing blame on women, despite men being just as involved. In reality, gossip ceased in mixed company and often thrived in gendered spaces that became hubs of community. "Steel Magnolias" unfolds in one such space—a home hair salon acting as the centre of community and friendship, complete with all the highs and lows. Adapted from the film of the same name, the play delves into these intricate connections, underscoring the significance of community.
This play is a natural fit for Henry Lawson Theatre; everything about this company exudes a sense of community, down to the youngest and most professional ushers I've ever encountered. When you attend a performance at Henry Lawson, you'll encounter familiar faces, both on and off the stage. Their shows excel because they are the product of a collaborative community effort—from meticulously crafted sets by many hands to costumes and the dedicated work of the actors on stage. Director Jason Darlington has evidently harnessed the power of the community at his disposal to create something truly delightful. One consistently impressive aspect of Henry Lawson's productions is the set. Detailed and making excellent use of perspective, it creates a beautiful, fully realised, self-contained world. While the permanent fixture of a vanity on stage was initially confusing, is well-designed. In every production, some aspects may not work as well, subject to personal preference. For example, while the use of the projector on the curtain was impressive, the frequent pulling of the curtain to indicate changes in time I am not sure was successful Curtain pulls and blackouts are delicate, as they can be necessary yet potentially disruptive to the audience's focus.
The ensemble cast faced a challenging task. A play like "Steel Magnolias" is static, with the same set, just different days, making sustaining energy a real challenge. Yet, the cast managed to be warm, engaging, and inviting. The play revolves around the relationship between Shelby and her mother, M'Lynn, portrayed by Nicole Harwood and Rosie Daly, respectively. Harwood shines on stage, emanating an effortless and carefree presence that suits the role of Shelby, the heart of the story. Harwood is immensely likable, establishing a strong rapport with the other ladies on stage. Daly, as M'Lynn, adeptly portrays the fiercely protective mother without it feeling nagging. Her standout moment is, of course, in the final act, where Daly captures the palpable nature of grief.
While Shelby and M'Lynn might be the focal point, the community these women are part of revolves around Truvy, played by Allison Woodgate. Truvy is the type of person who can make anyone feel at home, and Woodgate captures that ease wonderfully, projecting calm amidst chaos. Emma Lebeuf, as Anelle, complements this dynamic, portraying Anelle's transformation from cagey and nervous to soft-spoken and confident. Together, they do an excellent job of depicting two people who understand and trust each other.
A standout element of the show is undoubtedly Rhonda Hancock and Anne Bromfield as Ouiser and Clairee. Both women bring hilarity with fantastic delivery and physicality. Bromfield commands the stage with a presence that suits Clairee perfectly. Hancock is a spot-on Ouiser—cranky yet kind, fearsome yet fearlessly loyal. Both women, in my opinion, elevated the show. I mention this not to diminish the efforts of others, but to underscore the energy and emotion they brought to the stage.
Henry Lawson Theatre exudes coziness—a small world where stories are shared and community is forged—a fitting space for "Steel Magnolias." I rate this production 3.75 shades of pink out of 5.