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"Steel Magnolias," written by actor-turned-writer Robert Harling, has been both an award-winning off-Broadway play and a motion picture starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts. Now it is on stage at the Boerum Hill Arts Center, directed by Boerum Hill resident Steven Edward Hart.

The production not only remains true to the gutsy spirit and raucous humor that informs Harling’s dialogue, but also adds some original touches that make "Steel Magnolias" even more convincing. This is Hart’s fourth production at the Boerum Hill Arts Center (last season he directed "The Heiress" and "The Cherry Orchard") and with it he really comes into his own.

The play is about six southern ladies who share their joys and sorrows in the beauty parlor of their small town. The beauty parlor is actually the enclosed carport of owner Truvy (Katherine Alt Keener), a woman whose motto is, "There’s no such thing as natural beauty."

As the play opens, Truvy has just hired a new assistant, Annelle (Alex McCord), a married woman who, for some as-yet-to-be revealed reason, boards with the nastiest woman in town. Truvy’s best friends are Clairee (Coulter Kent), the late mayor’s wife; M’Lynn (Dandy Stevenson), a mental health worker married to a gun-toting nut who fires blanks at neighborhood birds; and Ouiser (Nancy Lindeberg), the twice-married town scold who now pours all her affection on her dog, Rhett.

Their equilibrium is upset and their friendship tested when M’Lynn’s sweet but headstrong daughter, Shelby (Kristen Hagen), gets married and decides to have a baby against her mother and her doctor’s advice, and despite the fact that she is a diabetic prone to seizures.

As one might suspect, this is clearly a woman’s play. The beauty parlor is their living room, and the curlers a deck of cards. What they lack in power they more than make up for in old-fashioned good sense. Husbands, sons and brothers never appear onstage, and when they are discussed, it’s only to show how silly and ineffectual they really are.

"I should have realized that Louie had problems when his imaginary friends wouldn’t play with him," Truvy says of her son.

"He’s a real gentleman. He probably takes the dishes out of the sink before he pees in it," Ouiser observes about Shelby’s dad.

But these sharp-tongued, tenderhearted women have no illusions about themselves either.

"Well you know what I say: If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me," Clairee announces.

"I’m not crazy. I’ve just been in a very bad mood for the past 40 years!" Ouiser admits.

"Time marches on, and sooner or later, you realize it is marchin’ across your face," Truvy tells her friends.

And perhaps most meaningful, Truvy’s reassurance to Annelle, "We enjoy being nice to each other. There’s really not much else to do in this town."

Indeed, Harling’s dialogue is so sparkling and witty all it needs is talented performers to deliver the lines. Certainly, Hart has these in his cast of six, three of them Brookynites - Hagen (Park Slope), McCord (Park Slope) and Kent (Boerum Hill).

From the sexy Keener and her assistant, McCord, the strumpet who gets religion, to the staid Kent, the dowdy Lindeberg, the determined Stevenson and Hagen, her defiant daughter, the "prettiest girl in town" - the actresses explore and fill their roles so completely and effectively it’s hard not to walk up to them after the show, give them a hug and ask how their husbands are doing or if the kids are coming home for Christmas.

Hart has chosen to stage the play in the round, so the audience is very close to the actors. This increases both the immediacy and the warmth. Sitting so close that one can smell the hairspray creates the sensation of actually being in the beauty parlor and almost being part of the action.

"Steel Magnolias" is like a good southern meal - a little sweet, a little tart and very satisfying.



"Steel Magnolias" plays through May 26, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm at the Boerum Hill Arts Center (Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 490 Pacific St. at Third Avenue). Tickets are $10 adults, $7.50 seniors and students. For reservations, call (718) 855-9865 or e-mail Tickets are also available at breukelen (369 Atlantic Ave.), Melting Pot (494 Atlantic Ave.) and Musicians General Store (213 Court St.).

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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