By Pat Robbennolt
As the 2013 season of the Cumberland County Playhouse opens, you are invited into a beauty shop in Chinquapin, LA where Truvy is the busy owner. Laughter, anger, compassion, and, yes, agony await you. Music, reminding the audience of “The Good Old Days” sets the mood in the Adventure Theater.
Donald Fann has directed the Playhouse leading ladies in a unique interpretation of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias. Lauren Marshall Murphy as Truvy, Lindy Pendzick as bride-to-be Shelby, Weslie Webster as her tough-to-love mother, Patty Payne as the perpetually depressed Ouiser, and Carol Irvin as the former mayor’s wife, accustomed to being “in charge” are as delicate as magnolia blossoms yet strong as steel. Anna Baker has joined the resident company this year. Her first role of the season is as Annelle, a new employee of the shop, and a newcomer to town with a hazy past.
Fann is a master of timing, as we felt in Duck Hunter Shoots Angel, The Moving of Lila Barton and Dearly Departed. We have ample opportunity to get acquainted with each of the characters during the first scene. The somewhat leisurely pace is essential to our understanding of these women, the climate of support the beauty shop offers and their emotional dependence upon one another.
Was it Fann’s decision or the suggestion of author Robert Harling that there be no note regarding the passage of time evidenced by the dimming of the lights? It took this elderly brain a few moments to realize a wedding had taken place, a child had been born and tragedy had struck during those interludes.
Particularly poignant are the scenes between Webster and Pendzick as mother and daughter. Their inability to trust and to express love is painfully accurate in reflecting a common mother-daughter experience. Confidentiality within the family is an issue as Clairee, played convincingly by Carol Irvin, is offended if not aware of all that is happening in the lives of others.
Seeing Patty Payne on stage is always a treat. Her line, “I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for forty years”, encapsulates this dog-loving neighbor. Each of the characters must develop during the breaks. Baker, in particular, changes from a frightened outsider, unsure of herself in the presence of these women to one who is both an integral part of the group and very pregnant.
We have seen Lauren Marshall Murphy in a wide variety of roles, often showcasing her musical capabilities. The role of Truvy allows her to utilize her considerable talent as an actress. Her energy, as well as her ability to relate to the others as individuals and as a group, is remarkable. She obviously worked hard to develop her dexterity as a hair stylist. Anna Baker, too, has honed those skills. Shampooing and rolling hair on curlers while interacting with the other women requires careful timing.
In the midst of national debate on gun control, some in the audience recoiled with Annelle (Baker) as shots are fired. We learned the father of the bride was trying to frighten birds. We were later startled to find a gun in the purse of Clairee (Irvin). She is more comfortable when armed. We are faced with our responses.
The Playhouse has scheduled a demanding season. We look ahead to fourteen other shows to be seen on the stages of the Adventure Theater and the Mainstage during 2013. Thanks, Jim Crabtree. We wait with eager anticipation as audience members.