FORT WORTH Among the many quotable lines in Robert Harling’s 1987 play Steel Magnolias is “laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” spoken by bon mot-creator Truvy, the owner of a Louisiana hair salon where the play’s four scenes take place.
That quote is a good descriptor of this play about six friends in a small town. The women’s one-liners make the show laugh-out-loud funny throughout, and if you’re not crying at the end, you might want to check your pulse. For this reason, it has been a favorite, especially among community theaters. The popularity of the 1989 all-star-cast movie version doesn’t hurt either.
DVA Productions is the latest local theater to revive it, and taking a cue from the 2012 Lifetime TV movie version, which starred an African-American cast, five of the six actresses are black. It’s a concept that transitions seamlessly; audiences love these Southern characters.
DVA founder Sheran Goodspeed Keyton directs, and the cast features Jennifer Bridgewater as Truvy; Faye Austin as the new girl in town and Truvy’s new hire, Annelle; Michele René as M’Lynn; Kenneisha Thompson as M’Lynn’s diabetic daughter, Shelby, whose wedding day hair prep starts the play; Evette Perry-Buchanan as the no-nonsense Clairee; and Karen Petite as the cantankerous Ouiser.
Overall, it’s an enjoyable production, which has more to do with the writing than anything. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s undeniably funny and bittersweet. The problem with this show, though, is that it’s so well-known that it’s easy to focus on the memorable characters and punch lines — and there’s at least one a minute, it seems — and not the effect of ensemble work.
That’s the trap that DVA falls into. Despite some very funny moments and performances, the ensemble unit is lacking. There were way too many shaky lines on opening night, and some of the actors, namely Petite, are too busy hamming it up. Meanwhile, Bridgewater’s timing with the jokes is consistently off a beat or two. Perry-Buchanan, Austin and René turn in the most well-rounded performances.
Keyton adds some interesting touches, such as a spontaneous scene in which four of the characters start dancing enthusiastically to Janet Jackson’s What Have You Done for Me Lately. In fact, the soundtrack used here (mostly R&B songs from the mid-’80s) is mostly spot-on, with the glaring exception of using Ghostsbusters during one of the most quiet, dramatic moments.
Still, it’s impossible to go into the show, even in the grumpiest of moods, and not come away with a salty taste. That would be from the tears dropping into a mouth that has been wide open with laughter.