The standing ovation is an overused gesture in Hampton Roads. I’ve been to shows where actors forgot their lines or musicians blew sour notes all evening, shows with bad pacing or weak and unfocused direction, and have been compelled by peer pressure to give standing ovations to a surprising number of them. It has made me wonder if maybe the standing ovation is something we in HR collectively think is par for the course; just a thing we as an audience are expected to do. This upsets me, because it isn’t.
A standing ovation should be given for a performance that deeply moves you, for a show that touches your deepest inner humanity. To stand when one applauds for a show means that it is special, and by definition that doesn’t happen often. Last Friday night, I gave the sixth standing ovation in my life that I meant to the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach’s production of Steel Magnolias.
image | Little Theatre of Virginia Beach
It’s a very well-known title despite it not being a terribly often-produced play. But we all saw the movie: Women, beauty parlor, armadillo cake, southern-ness, friendship, celebrating life in the midst of death, yadda yadda. I went into this show with middling expectations because of my overwhelming familiarity with it as an abstract. What, after all, could this eminently known entity show me that could even hope to break my stride, let alone jerk a tear? The answer, as it turns out, is six of the most compelling performances I’ve seen on local stages in quite some time, interweaving in such a deft and subtle way that the overall effect absolutely transfixes.
Steel Magnolias is a show that depends almost entirely on the strength of its cast, and director Kathy Strouse has picked the cream of the crop. Mary Lou Mahlman as Ouiser and Candy Dennis (the Judi Dench of HR, who pops up every now and again when a choice role is in the offing to show these kids how it’s done) as Clairee are both by turns uproariously funny and genuinely touching, supporting Elizabeth Dickerson, whose endearing portrayal of M’Lynn could coax a tear from even the steeliest eye. The cast is rounded out by Ann Flandermeyer Kirwin as Truvy, Natasha Gavin as Annelle, and Kristi J. Meyers, making her debut at LTVB as Shelby. Each of them imbues their performances with a depth of character and emotion that matches the veterans mentioned above.
However, while Steel Magnolias is most definitely a showcase for the actor, it is an equal challenge for the director, who must not only find six extremely strong actresses of very specific ages, but also shape their performances around each other into a harmonious whole, and Strouse makes this puppy sing. One gets the impression from her director’s note that this is a show that spoke deeply to her and that she’d been waiting for the opportunity to do. The opportunity was not wasted. Her staging is crisp and inventive; this show is riddled with simultaneous one-on-one conversations, and Strouse never fails to draw one’s attention to exactly where it needs to be at any given moment, nor does she neglect to keep the next thing simmering in the background. It takes a lot of effort to make something this complex look effortless.
Strouse’s finely honed presentation is aided by BA Ciccolella’s subtly effective lighting design, which evidences more depth of thought than the show-offy splashes of color and texture for which she’s become known. Matt Friedman’s scenic design is attractive and functional, with lots of little touches that create a genuinely authentic environment. Tiffany Shortridge’s costumes are extremely well-rendered, and speak volumes about the characters who wear them before a single word has been uttered. Hair – which is kind of a big deal in this show – is designed by Marilyn Abernathy, who hits the mark dead-on. Props, an often under-appreciated aspect of any production, are thoughtfully selected by Lori Booth. Had I a gun to my head, I’d say the only aspects of the production that fall short of perfect are the lengthy scenic transitions and the sound design, which consistently plays through the house speakers when it would more convincingly issue from backstage or onstage. These are peripheral concerns however, and do very little to mar the overall effect of this excellent production.
The Little Theatre of Virginia Beach is starting out its season very strongly with this fine show, and I highly recommend it. Judging by attendance on opening night, and word of mouth being what it is, one would be well-advised to reserve tickets well in advance, or run the risk of missing this early gem in the theatrical season.
For more info and show schedule, click here.