By John Lyle Belden
When the Indiana Repertory Theatre takes on familiar material, there is always an effort to make it fresh. This is especially important when the play has also been a beloved film.
For “Steel Magnolias,” the essence of the story has not changed, but the IRT has brought in the sets and cast from their co-production at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. With unfamiliar faces, it is easier to see them as their characters, and for their part they have had a lot of practice inhabiting them.
If you are unfamiliar with this story, this is an excellent opportunity to discover what millions have enjoyed since it premiered on stage in 1987, and on film in 1989. Robert Harling wrote the play based on events in his own family. “All the characters were based on real people, Mama’s friends,” he said in a 2017 interview. The scenes all take place in the women’s sanctum of Truvy’s Beauty Shop, the main plot centering on young Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn.
Directed by Laura Gordon (who previously worked with IRT on “Boeing Boeing”), the cast are Susan Lynskey as Truvy, the benevolent queen of this domain; Kate Abbruzzese as Shelby, whose fierce spirit strives to compensate for physical frailty; Annie Fitzpatrick as M’Lynn, a loving Mom dealing with the fact her girl inherited her stubbornness; Gina Daniels as Clairee, as close to high society as one gets in small-town Louisiana; Brittany Anikka Liu as Annelle, a young woman with a bad past hoping to build a better future with her faith; and Naomi Jacobson as feisty cantankerous Ouiser, whose rough edges guard a kind heart. Their polished performances feel genuine, with a relaxed air like we’re all invited guests, or just fellow customers waiting our turn at the beauty chairs.
This show has what recent lingo would call, “all the feels.” There are scenes of rollicking hilarity, with dozens of quotable lines, as well as wells of wet-eyed emotion – sometimes within moments of each other. It is wondrous, charming, cathartic, and uplifting.
One doesn’t have to be from the South to understand the spirit of the play – that women are delicate flowers made of the sturdiest stuff, because they have to be. See it for yourself through June 5 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit irtlive.com.