steel magnolias

The ladies of Chinquapin, Louisiana, in Rivertown's 'Steel Magnolias': Seated, Kelly Fouchi and Christian Tarzetti, and standing, Madeline Taliancich, Andee Reed, Lisa Picone Love, Becki Davis

If ever a play could be considered a “modern chestnut,” Robert Harling’s 1987 comic-melodrama “Steel Magnolias” would fit the bill.

This popular tale of friendship, made famous by the all-star screen adaptation, has become a family-friendly summer stock staple, frequently performed in community and regional theaters across the country.

Harling wrote “Steel Magnolias,” his first and only play of note, in honor of his sister who died of complications of diabetes.

Experiencing this cozy tale of life and death among a small circle of ardent friends is sometimes considered a rite of passage among young Southern women.

In the fictional town of Chinquapin, Louisiana, six distinctly individual women gather in Truvy’s Beauty Parlor for a wash and hairdo. While there they gossip about personal lives, banter about life and love, and most of all discuss the medical complications of vibrant bride-to-be Shelby (Christian Tarzetti), the daughter of M’Lynn (Kelly Fouchi).

The group of affable gals includes Truvy (Lisa Picone Love); her eager, born-again assistant, Annelle (Maddie Taliancich); and a pair of sparring locals — Clairee, the late mayor’s wife (Andee Reed) and Ouiser (Becki Davis), this backwoods town’s resident curmudgeon.

The emotional center of the play is the complicated relationship between the risk-taking Shelby and her tough-loving mother.

The plot, which borders on sentimental, is thin, but this isn’t a play about story. Harling’s focus and strength as a playwright is character and the tight bond that develops between these endearing and determined women.

Harling’s writing style is of the sitcom “Golden Girls” variety following the familiar plot formula of “funny, funny, funny” then “SAD!” Ironically, the unhappier elements, which some may find manipulative, resonate more effectively than the comic.

His dialogue zips along with near nonstop one-liners, some of which seem more manufactured than organic to the characters.

As directed by Ricky Graham, the cast tends to click more than it commands. Graham, a gifted comedian himself as demonstrated in last season’s hilarious “It’s Only a Play,” in this production has yet to communicate the finesse that integrates comic technique with three-dimensional people.

Graham’s concept favors presentational audience-provoking laughter, eliciting more chuckles than guffaws from the nearly sold-out opening audience. A number of laugh lines fell flat.

From the bumpy execution of the lighting design by Robert Camp to the frequent line bobbles, Rivertown’s folksy production seemed not quite ready to open.

What a marvelous experience it will be when these engaging actors relax into the material, develop a fluid chemistry with each other and share more of themselves in their performances.

Above all, this is a play about camaraderie. Its enduring appeal centers on an irrevocable bond of sisterhood which has yet to fully materialize among this ensemble of individuals bent more on crowd-pleasing.

As the harried, down-to-earth M’Lynn, Fouchi gives the most honest performance of the night. She gives her overly quirky co-stars full rein to flourish while she maintains a quiet dignity. Her heartfelt, climactic monologue is genuine and affecting.

Tarzetti makes a plucky, likable Shelby. While some of the others robustly overplay with impunity, Tarzetti gently underplays, which at times makes her difficult to hear.

Love’s sassy, blunt-talking Truvy and Reed’s adorable Clairee earn most of the evening’s laughs.

As Ouiser, the crank with a heart of gold, Davis bursts with energy as she booms her comic zingers — “I’m not crazy! I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!” — with great gusto.

Taliancich, a promising young actress, walks a deft line with the goofy, optimistic Annelle, a character who could easily revert to caricature.

Derek Blanco’s set makes full use of Rivertown’s stage in creating Truvy’s tacky lavender and yellow hangout.

Chris Arthur’s garish '80s costumes are colorful and fun, but unfortunately emphasize the characters’ two-dimensionality, which already border on types.

This gently appealing production will make no converts, but the already enamored will find it an amiable evening of fluff counterpointed with a wistful ending.

Bruce Burgun is a retired theater professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theater Critics Association.

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"STEEL MAGNOLIAS"

WHEN: Through March 18

WHERE: Rivertown Theaters, 325 Minor St., Kenner

TICKETS: $41.51-$45.90

INFO: (504) 461-9475 or RivertownTheaters.com