I am not a theater critic. I believe I am qualified to criticize a few things in this world – films, political arguments and myself, mostly – but theater is not anywhere near the list. But today, I think, I am willing to make the attempt. After all, I’ve been in a few. So I think I might have just enough qualifications to say something about the one play that just premiered in Keene tonight, and will have three more showings over the course of the weekend.
Steel Magnolias simply has no place in the pantheon of English-Language theater. It is, if anything, merely promising: four acts that manage to disastrously misplace the ending. Written by Robert Harling, a theater director from the agonizingly unpronounceable town of Natchitoches, Louisiana (trust me, I’ve tried, and it didn’t end well), it is a tableau of characters that are pleasant enough to watch, and a plot that isn’t in any way difficult. But it not only isn’t satisfying; it isn’t confusing enough to get away with it.
I have to ask here if these characters are stereotypes. Do real women understand and identify with them? I watched the play with a woman who was decidedly unmoved by them. Are they really as overdrawn as I thought they were, or do I just not understand southerners? The play confirmed for me that Texans, after all, are very different indeed from our fellow ex-confederates. Especially South Texans. Ironic for being so much farther south than The South is.
All of that being said, I believe it was performed admirably. Anne-Marie Jacobs cut an early lead and held it for two hours, pushing everyone else to stay in the moment and remain deeply southern. Alex Avila was transparent and perfectly readable the entire time she was on stage. And Chelsea Evans managed a particularly scalding emotional breakdown that gave the play the climax it didn’t deserve. I was particularly impressed by how much hair was actually being done on stage while I watched, and that they continued to act while doing it, or at least having it done.
But in the end, I have to admit that I belong almost entirely to things like Hemingway and Spaghetti Westerns, so I am probably not well placed to see the play as it is meant to be seen. But then, I like Sophie’s Choice and Billie Holiday, too, so I’m not completely blind to this sort of thing. I have to conclude no landmark in the repertoire of American Theater could ever end with a group hug.