Steel Magnolias—six of them, all in a row. And then one is gone. But don’t let the simple premise and homespun philosophy of Steel Magnolias fool you: This is one of the sweetest, most balanced and nuanced ensemble pieces in contemporary American theater. The fact that it’s written for six women, each with a distinct voice and story, makes it likely to bring out star talent, as it did in the memorable 1989 film and as it does again in director Jenny Sullivan’s new production, which includes Stephanie Zimbalist as the caustic, self-sacrificing matriarch M’Lynn and Bonnie Franklin as the irascible Ouiser. For two hours, Truvy (Clarinda Ross) presides over her northern Louisiana beauty shop as friends and family of bride and mother-to-be Shelby Eatenton Latcherie (Amy Handelman) gather to gossip and get their hair done. When it’s all over, the risk that young Shelby takes in pursuing her dream of having a child yields both tragedy and hope, and Truvy’s girls are drawn even more deeply into one another’s lives.
The beauty of the play version of this celebrated piece is in the way it develops plot and character through activity. Everyone from the new salon girl, Annelle (Angela Goethals), to the wealthy widow Clairee (Von Rae Wood) gets a chance to advance the plot with some neatly articulated bit of business. Handelman makes a brilliant and tender Shelby, and Franklin ratchets up the excitement with every entrance. But it’s Zimbalist who steals the show with her exquisite meltdown in Act Two, as bravura a piece of acting as we are likely to see this season.