Penobscot Theatre in full flower with ‘Magnolias’

Posted Sept. 07, 2009, at 8:14 p.m.

Penobscot Theatre Company has kicked off its 36th season with laughter and tears in a three-hankie production of “Steel Magnolias” at the Bangor Opera House.

Movie buffs most likely are familiar with the 1989 film version of Robert Harling’s play, which opened in New York two years earlier. The film was a star-studded success and helped launch Julia Roberts’ career. It also added to the story the men whom the women only talk about in the play.

The lack of men is what makes “Steel Magnolias” still resonate with audiences, even though the show is set in the mid-1980s in a Chinquapin, La., beauty parlor. The strength of the play and the reason it is revived so frequently is that it realistically portrays how women, especially women who have known each other for decades, share their joys and sorrows, fight with and console each other.

Director Nathan Halvorson expertly cast PTC’s production with the best actresses in the area. He turned them loose onstage and let them play with Harling’s zinging one-liners and the range of feelings that come from lives filled with happiness and grief. It was apparent at Saturday’s performance that Halvorson even-handedly guided his troupe to prevent one actress from upstaging another and created an outstanding ensemble in the process.

Lacey Martin, a recent graduate of the University of Maine, sparkled as Shelby, the diabetic determined to follow her own path, even if it kills her. Martin perfectly portrayed Shelby’s optimistic nature without slipping into a too-sweet sea of emotion. Part of the reason the audience felt the loss of the character so profoundly was that Martin made theatergoers fall madly in love with her.

As Shelby’s mother, M’Lynn, Jeri Misler perfectly balanced the character’s desire to protect her child from harm and the need to let Shelby make her own way in the world. Misler almost looked like she was underplaying the role in the first act, but it turned out she was expertly pacing herself toward M’Lynn’s emotional breakdown in the final scene. If the actress had overplayed the emotion earlier, Misler’s final scene would not have had such a devastating impact on the audience.

Alison Cox and Marcia Joy Douglas as Clairee and Ouiser, respectively, provided much of the spice and the laughs. Cox’s widow was a tower of determination, strength and entrepreneurship. Douglas, a theater professor at the University of Maine, showed Ouiser’s lovable interior beneath a crusty skin the character had spent a lifetime perfecting.

Annelle is probably the toughest character in the show to portray because she is the outsider coming into a tightknit circle of women. Christie Robinson, a recent graduate of the University of Maine Farmington, pulled it off like a professional. She showed how the character blossomed under the tutelage and often-critical eyes of the older women in the play. Robinson never fell back on stereotypes to create what is the least defined of Harling’s characters. The actress easily could have played Annelle as pouty or maudlin but Robinson dug deeper and created a character who learned to hold her own in a sea of strong Southern women.

Irene Dennis as beauty shop owner Truvy Jones is a welcome addition to the local pool of actors who regularly perform with PTC. The actress recently moved to the area from Massachusetts and gave a delightful performance last year in Ten Bucks Theatre Company’s “Duck Variations.” Her turn as Truvy was equally delicious as the beautician who can tease from her clients all their hopes, fears and secrets while she’s teasing their hair. Dennis wore this woman’s soul as if it were a beauty smock.

Meghan Jones’ set, complete with running water, looked like the garages all over America that have been converted into beauty parlors. Lynne Chase’s lighting complemented it in every way possible. Elham Khavari’s costumes evoked the best and the worst of 1980s fashions and fit, in more ways than one, each character to a T.

PTC first produced “Steel Magnolias” in 1995 before moving to the Opera House. That production brought in many first-time theater-goers who were familiar with the film but not the play. This new production should do the same.

“Steel Magnolias” is the first offering in what PTC’s Producing Artistic Director Scott R.C. Levy has said will be a season exemplified by doing more with less due to a budget that is 20 percent smaller than last season’s. So far, he hasn’t sacrificed quality. Truth be told, “Steel Magnolias” is the best production since “Little Shop of Horrors,” also directed by Halvorson, which is still the highest-quality show produced by PTC during Levy’s 4½ years at its helm.

IF YOU GO

What: “Steel Magnolias,” by Robert Harling

Who: Penobscot Theatre Company

Where: Bangor Opera House

When: Thursdays-Sundays, Sept. 10-13 and Sept. 17-20

How much: $15 to $40

What else: 942-3333 or visit www.penobscottheatre.org

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