Review: Strong Performances Highlight Hopewell’s ‘Steel Magnolias’

By J.E. Ballantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Hopewell Theatre’s 29th season opened on a strong note Friday night with a production of the popular comedy-drama, “Steel Magnolias.”

Set in a fictitious Louisiana town, the Robert Harling play focuses on six women who frequent Truvy’s Beauty Parlor. All good friends and regular customers, the six trade jabs and gossip all the while receiving Truvy’s beauty expertise.

Leading the all female ensemble cast is Truvy, played by Jeanine Rees. Rees is a natural choice for this role. Her energy and familiarity with the character make for a smooth performance, for the most part. She gives the role the flash and sass of a typical southern small-town gossip. The only hindrance encountered is that many times she is just a little over-the-top with her portrayal. There are times that this serves her well but other times it hurts her performance and strains believability just a bit and creates an artificiality to the character.

Along with meeting Truvy in the opening scene, the audience is also introduced to her new employee, Annelle, most ably played by Elise Vargo. Annelle is a scene-stealing character and provides a majority of the laughs in the early going. Vargo is on target with Annelle every step of the way with excellent comedy timing and facial “takes” that provide as many laughs as her lines. Vargo develops the character well as Annelle is probably the one character in the play that changes the most from beginning to end. Vargo takes full control of the character and is a real joy to watch.

As each new character strolls into the shop, the audience meets Clairee. Maria Petrella-Ack.ley turns in a convincing performance as the former “first lady” of the parish of Chinquapin, Louisiana. Quick with a comment and able to more than hold her own during the jabs the women take at each other, Petrella-Ackley gives a memorable performance. It is clear she is having a great time with this character and will probably remind many people of someone they know.

Much of the action and dialogue in the play center around Shelby, played by Emelia Sherin. Shelby pops in to prepare for her upcoming wedding that afternoon. Sherin makes Shelby a bright ray of sunshine with each entrance. The stage literally lights up when she is present. Being the youngest character in the show, Sherin provides an excellent contrast to the older women and their views. Nothing is a “big deal” to Shelby and she almost never agrees with her mother on anything – except one. Sherin’s smile and energy grabs the audience right away.

Mom, M’Lynn, is solidly portrayed by Stephanie Cambro. Cambro is in top form as she spars with daughter Shelby on any number of topics, especially the wedding. Neither seemed to have agreed on any aspect of it. Cambro plays M’Lynn calmly and with a controlled demeanor that makes the character very believable and compliments the other ladies perfectly. M’Lynn has her moments but Cambro knows when to pull her back for effectiveness. Her final scene is explosive, heartfelt, and memorable.

Pat Foltz plays Ouiser, a wise-cracking, pessimistic neighbor/customer of Truvy’s. Foltz has a field day with this character as zinger after zinger roles off her tongue as smoothly as Don Rickles insults. Her delivery is so rapid fire that may times, audience laughter covers up the balance of her line. Claiming she’s been in a “bad mood for the last 40 years,” Foltz’s timing and physical presence add much to the hilarity in the play.

Director/scene designer Matthew Mazuroski has assembled a fabulous cast of women for “Magnolias.” This play was originally scheduled for August but had to be postponed due to construction. It is difficult to keep a pending production fresh and alive for that long. Mazuroski dealt with the challenge and kept it as new as fresh baked bread.

We live in very tough times these days with everything that you hear on the news and the skyrocketing prices of everything. If you are looking for a laugh, and plenty of them, then catch “Steel Magnolias” at the Hopewell Theatre.

“Steel Magnolias” will continue at the Hopewell, 702 Mahoning Ave. Show times are Oct. 29, Nov. 4, 5 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 6 at 2:30 p.m.

Pictured: The cast of Hopewell Theatre’s production of “Steel Magnolias” includes (front row) Maria Petrella and Pat Foltz; and (back row) Jeanine Rees, Elise Vargo, Emelia Sherin and Stephanie Cambro.

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