I had intended to write about “Steel Magnolias,” the oft-produced play experiencing a new production at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre.
It’s a show that has made the rounds repeatedly to community and other regional theaters after a more than 1000-performance run off Broadway, a hit movie, and a star-packed Broadway revival. Seems like it’s a show I should have seen 30 years ago.
But, somehow, I never got around to seeing it.
Yes, I know about the spoiler. It was hard not to know about the spoiler.
Down a few lines. After the photo below.
Shelby is the one second from the left, a regular at the southern beauty shop that anchors this one-set wonder. She doesn’t insult or mock the other characters. She’s got heart.
Well, until she’s gone.
My hope was to bring fresh eyes to a show that’s become a standard.
“Steel Magnolia,” by the way, features Diane Kondrat.
Kondrat, once one of Indiana’s finest resident actresses (I’m still a little shaken from her Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”), moved to Oregon a few years back. She occasionally pays a return visit and the occasion is always, well, an occasion. She can be funny. She can be fierce. She can be funny-fierce.
Up until midway through the second act, Kondrat and company made “Steel Magnolias” a fair production of a play that had lost some of its freshness but kept most of its heart. These beauty shop denizens bickered, enjoyed their bickering, and, as much as some didn’t want to admit it, formed a community.
Many of the jokes fell flat. Some of the plotting seemed either obvious or random. The writing wasn’t so much lazy as unambitious. It was like the playwright said to himself “Good enough” after each interaction and then moved on. Because he knew the ending would pack a punch.
Kondrat plays the mother of the doomed young woman. And her loss came with words remarkably similar to ones she spoke in 2012 in the Phoenix Theatre’s production of “August: Osage County.”
In “August,” Kondrat’s character insisted her daughter promise not to die before her. “Listen to me,” she implored, “die after me, all right? I don’t care what else you do, where you go, how you screw up your life, just … survive. Outlive me, please.”
In “Steel Magnolias,” that came to pass to a very different Kondrat character. Yet her disbelief formed a cross-play/cross-writer/cross-years connection. At least in my mind. “It’s not supposed to happen this way,” she uttered. “I’m supposed to go first.”
You see, I saw “August: Osage County” just a few months after I lost my daughter, Maggie.
And I saw “Steel Magnolias” just a few days short of the anniversary of her death.
Kondrat’s character knows something that I know.
I don’t want to examine if “Steel Magnolias” is shameless or if the tears it generates are well-earned by the playwright. I can’t say if the cast elevates C-material or if this is a populist classic.
I waited over a week to write about this show in hopes that some semblance of objectivity would show itself. But as I got closer to the anniversary of that loss, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
What I remember is Kondrat and those words and that disbelieving truth.
And the knowledge that what “Steel Magnolias” gets right is that, when you are in the midst of such unfathomable heartbreak, the pains-in-the-asses you hang out with can be a key to your survival.
And laughter matters.
That’s the best I can do here right now.
Steel Magnolias runs through Feb. 2 at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre.