Arts & Events

Theatre Review: Pretty Good STEEL MAGNOLIAS at Alameda’s Altarena

By John A. McMullen II
Monday July 26, 2010 - 05:32:00 PM
Catherine Bucher, Analisa Svehaug (with curlers) and Jacqui Herrera (as stylist) are half the ensemble cast of STEEL MAGNOLIAS.
Catherine Bucher, Analisa Svehaug (with curlers) and Jacqui Herrera (as stylist) are half the ensemble cast of STEEL MAGNOLIAS.

There is a pretty good community theatre production of Steel Magnolias playing at the Altarena Playhouse in Alameda.  

Darrell Burson’s set is ultra-realistic and colorful with all the actual equipment, appointments, and kitschy décor of a Louisiana small-town beauty parlor, right down to the magazines from the 1980s when the play is set. Since the set extends practically into the audience’s laps, that nearly cinematic attention to detail is necessary and excellently executed. The two actresses who act as hairdressers (Jacqui Herrera as Truvy and Hannah Ward as Annelle) must be highly complimented on the extreme professionalism with which they do hair. We relax into their combing and spraying and curling, and it makes us believe we are in a beauty shop.  

Costuming is done masterfully and tastefully by Janice Stephenson, using the bright colors and floral designs that Southern women prefer. It’s appropriate to the region and their economic station, and the attention to detail in matching ensembles catches the eye and adds to character. 

All the actresses are talented and well-suited to their roles by type and temperament, and this credible casting is to the credit of director Richard Robert Bunker who teaches at the local high school. 

The audience loves the sappy, funny and heart-breaking story with the multitude of laugh lines that range from dry wit to cornpone. For those of you who haven’t seen a previous production or that awful movie version, it’s about six women in a beauty parlor over the seasons through a couple of years. The characters are the mayor’s widow (Catherine Bucher), the local curmudgeon (Monica McKey), the beautician (Jacqui Herrera) and her troubled new hire (Hannah Ward), the local head of social services (Trish Tillman) and her daughter who is the darling and favorite of all the beauty parlor denizens and a pediatric nurse (Analisa Svehaug). The play begins on the morning their darling is getting married. Much of the humor resides in the women “dis”-cussing men, sex, marriage, and good-naturedly insulting one another while decrying their plight as Southern Women.  

The problem is that it is “pretty good,” when—with this talented cast—it could be really good. And I think that it is a directorial problem.  

Too often, the actresses act in their own bubble rather than interacting. Getting them to really talk to one another is one of the main and too-often-ignored duties of the director. Realistic interaction is the key to any good play. 

The actresses by and large tend to underscore the laugh lines as if announcing, “Here comes another funny one,” and the audience obliges. It’s easy to get laughs since there are many funny lines. Unless it’s the broad frantic farce of, say, The Producers or Lend Me a Tenor, comedy of this sort is best played as realistic drama wherein you show your wit. Truly witty people get the best laughs by saying their witty things as throw-away understatements. There is no doubt that comedy is difficult and slippery. Quite often this cast gets it right, and come through with a zinger, but they always seem to be working for the laughs. Rather than letting it come out of the truth and pain and understatement, they seem to be pushing to get an audience reaction. 

The show runs about a half hour too long. It’s a two act show--55min/50min with intermission of 25 min since they only have one small bathroom per gender—which means out by 10:15, and we didn’t get out till 10:40. This takes the juice out of the action and emotional punch of the story, just as playing Yankee Doodle andante rather than its usual merry allegro would not inspire you to march along. 

Just as a conductor sets the tempo for the orchestra, it is the director’s job to set tempos and rhythms which must change through the play. Admittedly, the conductor is up there on the podium waving the stick. The invisible director must find ways to get the actresses to find the right pace. There are methods such as directing the actress to react on a particular word that the other actor is saying which makes her jump right in to respond as one does in real life. Another way is to specify the pauses and expect everything else to romp along apace. Otherwise, the production—and this one is an example— is indulgent and slow, often due to the actors’ natural and understandable instinct to milk their lines and “take the stage” rather than direct their energy to the person they are talking to. 

The actresses fall into the trap of “playing the accent” rather than expressing themselves with it: their delivery is often slowed to a pace more suited to the lassitude of Dogpatch than the coffee-laced energy of a beauty shop on the Saturday morning of the wedding of the local darling. Women in the South talk fast, interrupt and talk over one another, and hide their feelings behind a funny barb or self-deprecation. I know—I was married to a woman from Louisiana.  

Only Analisa Svehaug (Shelby) delivers with the natural quickened pace that makes us pay attention and fills us with energy—she was the stand-out in their last production of Sylvia—but even her accent comes and goes.  

The accents as coached by Julie Ponsford Holland are from all over the South rather than specific to Chinquapin, Louisiana, or any other shared place which seems important to portray small town folk who lived all there life in the same place.  

There are two major Southern dialects: Appalachian (think Dolly Parton) and Coastal (think Scarlett O’Hara). They have a lot to do with whether the R is pronounced. In this production, R’s came and went. 

Tending to this learning curve with a repeated regimen of group lessons and tapes to practice with is the proper domain of the director and dialect coach. Acting with an accent is a serious undertaking: a good dialect can make us believe and take us to a different place while a bad one can make us want to leave or want to be in a different place. Hannah Ward (Annelle) in this production has the most consistent and thereby believable accent, choosing the Appalachian dialect assumedly to distinguish herself as an outsider. 

Contributing to the excessive running time are the 5 minute long scene changes—the longest scene changes I have ever witnessed. At one point, the audience, to keep up their spirits, started to sing along to a Christmas song that was playing in the extended blackout. When will directors learn that the scene changes are part of the show? Having a couple of teenagers in sweatshirts redecorate the set in the darkness spoils it; a little imagination in costuming stagehands as acceptable characters or having the actresses change the set in a motivated manner would save the day.  

I encourage community theatres everywhere to seek out and pay a little more for better—and trained—directors in order to get better productions. There is no shortage of them in the Bay Area. Actors would flock to the theatres for the experience of working with a talented director whose tutelage would make their performance shine and build an ensemble. The talent is there, but it needs to be molded to the needs of the production with a strong vision. Most of the criticism I hear from community theatre actors in general is that they receive little direction, or the wrong-headed kind. And a talented actor is not necessarily a good director, just as an excellent painter may not sculpt well; they are different disciplines. 

Let me add that there is a conundrum in reviewing community theatre. These good folks are giving up their time—between rehearsals, learning your lines, and performing it’s about 200 hours and lots of piled-up laundry to be in a play —and they do it for no pay other than applause, artistry, and self-satisfaction. Some have a little training but natural talent. All too often, the director doesn’t have training and doesn’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it, and, though directors are paid, their remuneration comes out to about $2.00/hr. So here I sit at my keyboard, listing in detail everything that is wrong with a performance that the audience laughed at and was moved by and that played to a 90% full house.  

But how are things going to get better if no one criticizes with specificity? The average theatre-goer can tell when something is amiss, but is at a loss to express it. That’s where I come in, I guess. Some critics are reluctant to do this since they worry about hurting this community-building artistry. However, since twice the price of a movie is charged for admission, and since the performers hold themselves to be artists, I must assume that they are fair game.  

STEEL MAGNOLIAS plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sunday Matinees at 2 pm, through August 8 at Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High Street (take High St. Exit off 880), Alameda. CA 

Tickets/info: (510) 523-1553 or 

Written by Robert Harling, directed by Richard Robert Bunker, sets and painting by Darrell Burson, costuming by Janice Stephenson, lighting by Anne Kendall, sound design by Ryan Scott, with dialect coaching by Julie Ponsford Holland. Stage management by Kelly Reynolds. Frederick L. Chacon, artistic director. 

With: Jacqui Herrera (Truvy), Hannah Ward (Annelle), Catherine Bucher (Clairee), Analisa Svehaug (Shelby), Trish Tillman (M’Lynn) and Monica McKey, (Ouiser).