THEATER REVIEW: Girl Talk, Hairdos, and Beloved Actresses in Steel Magnolias

IMG_0644 (1)New Hope is a lovely destination in warm weather, and the storied Bucks County Playhouse — gorgeously situated along the Delaware — is taking full advantage. Their cannily planned season traffics in a time-honored summer theater tradition — give ‘em breezy, crowd-pleasing fare, and bring in celebrity casts.

First up is Steel Magnolias. Robert Harling’s 1987 play is more familiar from not one but two film adaptations, but in either form it’s a piece that audiences eat up — and critics, for the most part, disdain (“freeze dried,” wrote Ben Brantley about the Broadway premiere).

I’m afraid I’m mostly with the critics on this one. The script is formulaic and not as funny as it ought to be. The best lines are often the asides, rather than the obvious punch lines — as when one character introduces a speech by saying, “I was reading an article in Glamour about tension in family situations…” Harling’s attempts to move from comedy to sentiment are awkward, and while I enjoy the folksy down-home milieu (six women who pass much of their lives in a tiny Louisiana beauty shop), the writing level here is far more Designing Women than Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

But go figure — people love it. And I don’t want to get too sniffy about Steel Magnolias, because I also enjoy the chance to see favorite performers strut their stuff. Harling certainly knows how to give us that.

So does Bucks County Playhouse, with a production that features three expert actresses, beloved from their work in TV and movies. Toping the bill as a pair of rival town biddies are Susan Sullivan and Jessica Walter. Both have specialized in playing acerbic urban sophisticates, and it’s charming to see them in this very different world.

Sullivan more successfully channels Southern-ness — in fact, her soft-grained characterization here is quite different from her (wonderful) work on Castle, but, as usual, she lands her jokes with the precision of an Olympic archer. Walter is broader and more caustic, and if her performance is sometimes reminiscent of what she does as Lucille Bluth — one of the great comic impersonations — who’s going to complain?

Patricia Richardson has the least showy and most challenging role — she’s meant to be the emotional center of a play that doesn’t really have one. But she finds both the brittle outer layer and the heart underneath, and she’s often quite touching (and also good at the Southern-ness).

Walter, Sullivan, and Richardson are the marquee names, but the entire cast is strong. I liked especially Clea Alsip, who plays Shelby with considerable dimensionality — and Lucy DeVito, who makes an adorable Annelle.

At the helm of all this is another celebrity — director Marsha Mason, who appeared in the Broadway production. What she delivers here is bright, energetic, and highly performative; the show is stronger in its individual contributions by each actor than in a cohesive sense of community and relationships, though some of this may grow.

But there’s a limit to how much depth any Steel Magnolias can offer — it is what it is. And if it’s your thing, I imagine you’ll enjoy the terrific cast, and the whole Bucks County experience.

Steel Magnolias runs through June 18. For more information, visit the Bucks County Playhouse website.

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