2007-08-17 / Columnists

On The Beach

Steel Magnolias Bloom At Post Theatre
Commentary By Beverly Baxter

BEVERLY BAXTER BEVERLY BAXTER Why I just do declare... y'all just got ta get yusselves all gussied up and get up to The Post Theatre this weekend and honey, y'all gonna have such a good time! There are these six women who dish the dirt, and they'll make you bust a gut and oh my, how they'll make you cry. Why you've known these women all along...they are in our midst...they are us. Steel magnolias, all!

After the successful run of "South Pacific," which performed to sold-out audiences, The Rockaway Theatre Company continues its 10th anniversary season as it mounts its current production of "Steel Magnolias."

Written by Robert Harling, "Steel Magnolias" is a must see for the casual theater-goer, as well as for those who are habitually mesmerized by the magic of the "fourth wall." Its riveting dialogue and richly textured cast will take you on an emotional odyssey where you'll leave feeling enhanced for having gone for the ride.

Set in the small bayou town of Chinquapin, Louisiana, the action takes place in Truvy's Beauty Shop, where the credo is: "Thank God there's no such thing as natural beauty, or we'd be out of business!" Truvy's is where you'll meet six southern women who engage in witty repartee and saucy drawl-speak, as they dish ("The only thing nice I can say about her is her tattoos are spelled correctly") and mingle.

The beauty shop is also where appearances are made and coiffed; but don't let the setting or the sticky glaze of hairspray fool you.

Underneath their proper southern airs of frivolity are six substantive, strong, sassy, steely women, "steel magnolias," who struggle to come to terms with the play's deeply moving conclusion. The play deals with issues of mortality and what is fair; of one's faith vs. medical science; and daring to live under one's own terms even if it means having merely "thirty minutes of wonderful, rather than a life time of nothing special."

Originally produced off-Broadway at the W.P.A. Theatre, "Steel Magnolias" made its Broadway debut in 2004 at the Lyceum Theatre; but it is the screenplay and film version that is perhaps most popular with mass audiences.

Directed by Peggy Page, whom I fondly regard as the Grand Dame of the RTC, and co-directed by Michael Wotypka, whom actress Susan Hartenstein dubbed the only "Y chromosome" in his direction of "The Women," "Steel Magnolias" boasts brilliant staging and casting. Page adheres to the playwright's intent that the women be depicted as real-life characters, rather than played as caricatures. In them, you will recognize the uncanny and endearing parts of yourself, or of women you know.

The play's action centers on Shelby Eatenton, the prettiest girl in town, and the youngest of the six, who is about to be married.

She exudes blushing innocence; yet she is defiantly determined to be her own woman and make the most significant decision in her life. In her first principal role, Courtney Calciano endows Shelby with the most magnanimous and courageous qualities. You take her into your heart.

In her acting debut, Susan Corning delivers a natural and insightful performance in the role of M'Lynn, Shelby's mother, as she is forced to reconcile issues of loss and faith. Corning's seven-minute monologue in the last act will have you reaching for the nearest box of tissues! She's that extraordinary!

The part of Ouiser (the Shirley MacLaine role and one of my favorites) is shared by RTC veteran Susan Hartenstein and Eileen Farrell, who serves as alternate in the role. It was Farrell, in her first time ever on stage, who performed the role on opening night. I think that, in itself, describes the "no guts, no glory" attitude of Harling's character. Ouiser is the quintessential curmudgeonly neighbor next door. She is lovably cantankerous, eccentric and direct. The playwright renders her the kind of lines we'd all love to utter, but don't! She has a mistrust of most people and things, particularly maniacal religious zealots. She talks about how she and her friends used to love to dress up as nuns and go bar-hopping!

The wonderful role of Clairee, the widow of the town's former mayor, is played by RTC actress Lori Santopetro. Despite fears of loneliness, Clairee represents hope to the rest of the cast. She is always striving to expand her capacity to overcome her fear and live life to its fullest.

In the role of Truvy is RTC veteran actress Kerry O'Connor, who continues to generously give compelling performances to every role. The action takes place in her beauty shop, where she emanates feelings of friendship and intimacy as if you were in her living room. It is her character that holds the cast dynamic together.

Perhaps the most intriguingly complex role is that of Annelle. Played by Faye Peithman, Annelle, since she is from somewhere else, but never reveals where, is the outsider. She transforms from being a meek 18-year-old with a shamed past, to a full-blown, Mardi Gras, praise-the-Lord Christian!

You will be treated to lines like, "I'm not crazy, I've just been in a bad mood for 30 years!" or "He's a good ole southern boy; they all either shoot it, stuff it, or marry it!"

Once again, Peggy Page wows and tantalizes with her directorial style and keen sense of casting. As sassy as any one of her characters, she boasts, "We were absolutely brilliant in our casting!" As co-founder, house manager and executive board member, Peggy has assumed a myriad of roles for the theatre, both on-stage and off.

Since its humble grassroots beginnings at the former Park Playhouse on Beach 116 Street, Peggy has starred in and directed many of RTC's most memorable roles, particularly in "Nunsense," where her natural comedic timing and sense of the absurd had audiences wanting more. Her other talents include selling tickets, sweeping floors, and she has a great way with a paint brush! "You know you're a community theatre when the audiences recognize you as the one who takes out the garbage!" And that's really what community theatre is all about. It's a collaboration of volunteers who contribute whatever it is they may do or talent they may have. Whether you're an accomplished dancer, actor, singer; or maybe your craft is set design and carpentry or lighting and sound, or perhaps you're an athlete who can do stunts on stage or help expand the website, there's a part for everybody to play. Choose your role!

One thing I learned in my years at Columbia and at The Yale School of Drama is that community theatre is the place where you can allow yourself the freedom to fail. That's where if you fall, you can get back up and try some other way to approach a scene. And you have to be willing to feel and fail; and in some cases, even sleep on the stage!

"Steel Magnolias" will run August 17, 18, 24, and 25 at 8 p.m.

Call the box office at 718-850-2450 for tickets.

The RTC will continue its 10th anniversary season with the popular Rockaway Cafe, a musical salute showcasing 10 years of musicals like "Nunsense," "The Fantasticks," "Little Shop of Horrors," "Oliver," as well as other favorites.

And looking toward future projects, RTC is looking to mount shows like "The Producers," "Chicago," and "West Side Story." So, if any of you guys out there think you can bust a move and dance, watch for casting calls and audition! The Rockaway Theatre Company has been realized through the vision and unyielding dedication of its Executive Director, John Gilleece, to whom we are most grateful for bringing comparable Broadway-caliber productions to our shores. RTC has 501c3 status enabling your generous tax deductible donations, which are always welcome.

See you....On the Beach and...at the show!

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