Portraying “laughter through tears” is a tough proposition: Highlight the one-liner comedy too much, and it’s vaudeville; over-emphasize the pathos, and it’s saccharine.
That’s the challenge taken on by an accomplished ensemble of half a dozen actresses working with Robert Harling’s time-tested camaraderie-plus-tragedy play, Steel Magnolias. Their efforts lead to a good but imperfect production at the Civic (through March 21).
Spoiled, perhaps, by the beloved 1989 film adaptation, viewers may forget how difficult it is to get the tone of Harling’s play just right. His dialogue teeters between being delightfully heightened for the stage and being too clever to be credible: “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.” “We went skinny-dipping and did things that frightened the fish.” “The nicest thing I can say about her is all her tattoos are spelled correctly.” “An ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.”
Director George Green’s production steers a mostly humorous course. The cast members, in their various ways, are all willing to make themselves look and sound ridiculous. (And that takes some bravery.) The payoff is the solidarity among them, the sense that these six women, over and above all the joking and sniping at each another, really do care for one another.
As Annelle, Kelsey Strom overdoes the church-mouse shyness in the opening I’m-just-new-in-town scene, but it proves to be a set-up for the second scene. Strom transforms herself convincingly into a woman who may treat piety like a superstition but knows how to get a man, give her own life a make-over and achieve the house, husband and baby dreams that the Julia Roberts figure, Shelby, is supposed to get and doesn’t.
As Shelby, Bethany Hart maintains a quizzical grin on her face through most of the beauty parlor banter — amazed and amused by what-all she’s hearing, but also strong-willed enough to insist, gently, on her own way. A diabetic-attack scene is handled with exceptional realism. Throughout, Hart looks stricken but upbeat, pale but spunky.
It’d be the evening’s best performance if it weren’t for Kathie Doyle-Lipe in what is apparently her third local performance as Ouiser, the grouchy imp who takes out her resentments on all the beauty parlor gals.
Doyle-Lipe does a slow burn and then keeps on burning for two acts until eventually revealing a softer side. Sneering beneath a ratty skullcap, she’s hilarious.
Yet if Doyle-Lipe finds the rounded facets of her character, Molly Parish doesn’t. As Truvy, the owner of the beauty parlor, Parish exudes big-haired chirpiness, but the compassion beneath got buried under a desire to sound funny. To compound the problem, shaky diction caused a lot of Parish’s zingers to sound mushy.
Wendy Carroll, however — as Clairee, the straight-talking wealthy widow — was masterful. Carroll, more than anyone in the cast, brings Golden Girls bluntness to Harling’s joke parade: dry wit that’s not too pointedly witty while also aware that it’s more than just dry. She’s a welcome addition to the local acting community.
As M’Lynn, the mother of the unfortunate bride-to-be, Melody Deatherage demonstrates maternal concern in the early going. She seems removed from her emotions during the mother-daughter showdowns, but soon that emotional reserve pays off in the steely-eyed, fixed-smile episode when M’Lynn shows just how much she’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of her daughter. The final scene, however, just wasn’t convincing: If you’re going to deliver a grief-crazed speech about how you’re so angry that you could just hit something... well, then, haul off and hit something. Words without actions seem limp.
And then, soon after, the timing of a grief-deflating bit of comic business seemed rushed, creating a mishmash of emotions in the final scene. As I say, Harling’s tonal shifts are tricky. At least the Civic’s cast gets most of the humor right.
Steel Magnolias puts strong Southern women on display on Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through March 21 at Spokane Civic Theatre, 1020 N. Howard St. Tickets: $21; $19, seniors; $14, students; $8, student rush. Visit spokanecivictheatre.com or call 325-2507 or (800) 446-9576.