Primo cast makes Drury Lane's 'Steel Magnolias' worth seeing

“Steel Magnolias” - ★ ★ ★/h3>

When it came to casting Drury Lane Theatre's “Steel Magnolias,” director Johanna McKenzie Miller and casting director Matthew D. Carney hit the jackpot.

Miller's ensemble - comprised of Janet Ulrich Brooks, Amy J. Carle, Lillian Castillo, Cordelia Dewdney, Elizabeth Ledo and Susie McMonagle - is primo.

In fact, the cast is what piqued my interest in Drury Lane's revival of Robert Harling's 1987 dramedy - a celebration of sisterhood - about six women sharing their triumphs and tragedies while getting their hair styled and their nails painted.

Filled with sugarcoated gibes and folksy aphorisms, “Steel Magnolias,” is a sentimental, bordering on saccharine, tale set in a fictional Louisiana burg during the 1980s (whose dated references have not aged well).

Elizabeth Ledo, left, Susie McMonagle and Janet Ulrich Brooks play longtime friends who support each other through triumphs and tragedies in Drury Lane Theatre's revival of "Steel Magnolias." Courtesy of Brett Beiner

The action unfolds in a beauty shop (a homey salon framed by tree branches dripping with Spanish moss by set designer Angela Weber Miller) owned by the good-natured, gossip-loving Truvy (Ledo) who maintains “there is no such thing as natural beauty.”

We meet her as she welcomes new employee Annelle (Castillo), a recent beauty school graduate whose no-good (maybe) husband has run off and left her destitute.

Together, they welcome Truvy's regulars, longtime friends who include the recently widowed Clairee (McMonagle), the perpetually cantankerous Ouiser (Brooks) and the levelheaded M'Lynn (Carle), mother of bride-to-be Shelby (Dewdney), who has an appointment for her wedding day coiffure.

Annelle (Lillian Castillo), seated, is determined to save the soul of grumpy Ouiser (Janet Ulrich Brooks), standing behind her, to the amusement of Clairee (Susie McMonagle), left, in "Steel Magnolias" at Drury Lane Theatre. Courtesy of Brett Beiner

The play unfolds over about 2½ years, during which we witness these magnolias bloom. The grieving Clairee finds joy in art, travel and a new career. Ouiser, who's “been in a very bad mood for 40 years,” finds love. Empty-nester Truvy finds a surrogate daughter in Annelle, who transforms from a timid girl to a confident young woman. Overprotective M'Lynn accepts her daughter's choices. And the delicate, doomed Shelby, who would “rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special” experiences, albeit briefly, what she always desired.

As Truvy, Ledo is terrific. Her performance feels effortless and the warmth and sass she brings to her character feels authentic. McMonagle is a hoot as wry, elegant Clairee, and Brooks makes a delightfully peevish Ouiser. Both displayed a deft comic touch that McKenzie Miller employs to great effect, earning them some of the evening's biggest laughs.

Perhaps the most striking transformation is Annelle, who goes from mousy outsider to cherished friend. We witness the seeds of that transformation early on when Castillo shows us the iron will the sweet-as-spun-sugar Annelle possesses.

M'Lynn (Amy J. Carle), left, and her daughter, Shelby (Cordelia Dewdney), share big news with their beauty shop sisters in Drury Lane Theatre's revival of "Steel Magnolias," which runs through Aug. 7. Courtesy of Brett Beiner

Chin raised and shoulders squared, she informs Truvy in no uncertain terms: “My personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair.”

Equally determined is Dewdney's Shelby, a gardener of sorts, who encourages these women to flower. Lastly, there's Carle, whose description of her daughter's final moments was lovely for its understatement.

“I was there when that beautiful creature drifted into my life,” she said, “and I was there when she drifted out of it.”

For me, those moments resonated more profoundly than the showier, more melodramatic speech that followed. Therein rests the problem with “Steel Magnolias.” The sentiment turns mawkish and the whole thing feels contrived. Unfortunately, even a primo cast can't make up for that.

Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111,

Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 7

Tickets: $64-$79, dinner-theater packages available

Running time: About 2 hours, 30 minutes, including intermission

Parking: In the adjacent lot

Rating: For teens and older

COVID-19 precautions: Masks are optional

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