“I find it amusing. Men are supposed to be made out of steel or something,“ is the iconic line from Robert Harling’s well loved play “Steel Magnolias,” that had the whole audience laughing and crying on Feb. 5, when L.A. Theatre Works gave an unforgettable radio-style performance of the play at Hillsdale College.
Many know “Steel Magnolias” because the play was made into a movie in 1989, starring Sally Fields, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, and Shirley MacLaine. The movie became a classic, making audiences laugh and cry at the peculiar beauties and sorrows of life. Though LATW’s performance was utterly different from the movie as a live radio-style performance, it captured the vibrant humor and poignant story that “Steel Magnolias” is famous for. And most of all, the type of performance LATW gave showed how powerful good and simplistic storytelling can be.
The cast was comprised of six women, each standing in front of a mic facing the audience the whole time, delivering their lines. It was simple, and there was little movement or visual stimulation. But these women didn’t need visual stimulation: Their mere voices and speaking were captivating as they told their story. There was never a moment of boredom, even though they were literally just standing and talking to the audience.
As the audience laughed at the sassy jokes, and sat perfectly silent at the solemn climax, the power of the actresses and Harling’s storytelling was proved. It was comforting to see that, in a culture that relies so heavily on visuals and screens for entertainment, old-fashioned, good storytelling still has the immense power to grip audiences.
To any devotee of the 1989 “Steel Magnolias” movie, LATW’s performance may not have the same power that the screen does. And it’s true that no one can ever capture the snarkiness of Ousier Boudreaux and lines like, “Don’t try to get on my good side! I no longer have one,” the way that Shirley MacLaine did. And Sally Fields’ gut wrenching performance, when she is crying and asking why her daughter would die before her, is untouchable.
James Brandon, chairman and professor of theatre and dance, said that he loved the performance and thought that “Steel Magnolias” translates very well into a radio play. And though the radio-style did not have the visuals of the movie or play, Brandon said he felt like he could have closed his eyes and got the full rendering of the story just by listening. In fact, he said that he now finds the live play boring by comparison.
“I inherently like this style of radio-style,” he said. “This is much better than the live play.”
Brandon knows that “Steel Magnolias” is a cult classic and many people love the movie. But he thinks the actresses were stellar and the pace of the storytelling was remarkable.
“Each actress approached their role appropriately,” Brandon said.
As a play overall, Brandon said he loves how unique “Steel Magnolias” is. It is one of the few plays that has six female protagonists and it is rare that a stage play can translate so well into a radio play.
In many ways the 1989 movie is always going to be the most powerful performance of Harling’s play. But LATW’s actresses had to employ a completely different style of acting which may be even more difficult than what Sally Fields did on screen. They didn’t have the option to act through motions, or even interact with one another, since they stood in a line, never looking at or addressing each other. They had just their voices, facial expressions, and small hand motions to tell a poignant story about life, death, and friendship.