A Playwright's First, A Comedy Set In His Native Dixie

Posted: July 16, 1987

NEW YORK — An all-woman play written, remarkably, by a man of humorous insight has moved into Off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theater. Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling's first play, has transferred from the showcase WPA Theater, following the path of Key Exchange, Nuts and Little Shop of Horrors.

Harling writes in the Southern-eccentric vein popularized by playwright Beth Henley. His play, set in a beauty shop in a small Louisiana town that the playwright calls Chinquapin, observes the behavior of a representative segment of the population.

Truvy, who runs the shop, and her new assistant, Annelle, are farther down the social ladder than their customers. Truvy is a dedicated professional who subscribes to a journal called Southern Hair and says, firmly, that there is no such thing as natural beauty.

The nervous, self-doubting Annelle is in flight from marriage to a bad man. She joins the Riverside Baptist Church, is born again and feels a lot better as a result. The customers are a rich widow with a tart tongue, a sour woman who lives for her collie and a mother and daughter whose bickeringly loving relationship is the play's main subject.

The play begins with the creation of a Princess Grace coiffure for the daughter on her wedding day and proceeds, through much laughter, to the lamentable consequences of the daughter's stubborn insistence on having a baby against doctor's orders.

In perfect harmony with trendy feminist thought, the men in the lives of these women do not measure up; they are either dull or lazy or crazy or

criminal. They plainly aren't worth the showing, so the playwright doesn't bother to bring them onstage.

One of the striking things about these Southern plays is their cultural authenticity. Harling is from Natchitoches, La., and says that the mother and the daughter in the play are his own family. He says further that certain details are likewise from life, such as the "groom's cake" that we are told is in the shape of an armadillo, with gray icing.

On the whole, Southern writers have never needed to be inventive; they just

put it down as it happened, and the rest of the country thinks they're outrageously colorful. In the Christmas segment of Steel Magnolias, for instance, mention is made of a "mismatched manger scene." Such a thing probably exists down there, but it has a surreal sound.

In any case, Harling writes with uncommon sympathy of a sisterhood that speaks its mind in places in which men are never seen, and in this respect his play transcends its regional identity. There is a strong and true bond between the mother and her daughter and moving emotional support for them from the other women. The playwright's shafts of wit take flight almost involuntarily, like startled birds. (Critical strictures against plays that turn on medical problems probably should not be invoked in the case of a fellow who is just starting out.)

Harling should offer up a little prayer of thanks for the sharp casting and direction that have produced performances of such witty grace as those of Margo Martindale as Truvy, Constance Shulman as Annelle, Mary Fogarty as the town persimmon, Kate Wilkinson as the rich widow and Betsy Aidem and Rosemary Prinz as the mother and daughter. The director is Pamela Berlin, who plainly knows women as well as, if not better than, the playwright does.

Designer Edward T. Gianfresco's beauty shop is puzzling at first, because one wall is clearly the exterior of a house. But the oddness of it vanishes when Truvy explains that we are looking at what was once a carport, converted by her lazy husband into a place in which she could support him.

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