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NC Theatre's Steel Magnolias, a classic weepie about relationships

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I know the 1989 film Steel Magnolias only by its reputation as the emblematic "chick flick." Was there ever a more derogatory and misleading description of a genre? If the 1987 stage version, now playing at the Progress Energy Center from in a production directed by Eric Woodall for the North Carolina Theatre, is any indication, "chick flick" means a story about women featuring a lot of dialogue about relationships. Of course, if you replace the women with men, you have a critically acclaimed Judd Apatow comedy. But I digress.

The play is smart and funny, consisting of little more than six women hanging out in a beauty parlor in Louisiana in the 1980s. The script by Robert Harling was based on his own sister's fight with diabetes. The diabetes plot, in which young and spirited Shelby (Anne Horak) decides to have a baby despite a doctor's warnings, is well known to anyone even slightly familiar with the film. Not to spoil anything for the uninitiated, but it's what gives Steel Magnolias its reputation as a classic weepie.

The characters are all lively and the performances well done. Tony Award-winning Raleigh native Beth Leavel is the most accomplished as M'Lynn, Shelby's concerned but levelheaded mother. Her big moment at the end is over the top, but even the other characters remark upon this by trying to make a joke. (An Apatowian response to genuine emotion if there ever was one.)

Other than Shelby's diabetes and some friendly gibes, any real conflict between these characters doesn't exist. I realize that the play's setting in the beauty parlor insulates the characters from outside conflict, but I would have liked to see it explore the divisions between these women a little more. Only Annelle (Madeline Chloe Taylor), a young out-of-towner who becomes an Evangelical Christian, provides some tension, and even her conversion is played mostly for laughs. A play acknowledging that friendship is not always fun, but requires work and sacrifice like any other relationship, still could have been a powerful statement on female sisterhood, but as it stands there's the explicit assumption that absolutely nothing could ever break these women apart. It's sincerely felt, but feels a bit false.

Still, it's a long way from the warm and accessible Steel Magnolias the play to the maudlin and unwatchable Steel Magnolias of pop culture memory. Neither is a masterpiece; only one actually exists.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Girls nights out."

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