Theater review: BRT Breathes Fresh Life into ‘Steel Magnolias’

Steel Magnolias 1FRANKLIN, Tenn. – I wasn’t thrilled about seeing Steel Magnolias again – until Boiler Room Theatre’s excellent production made me glad I’d driven the 45 minutes from my home to theirs.

Steel Magnolias 2Robert Harling’s 1987 play is certainly a wonderful piece of theater, but after losing track of the number of productions I’ve seen over the past 25 years – not to mention the all-star 1989 film version – it was one of those shows that I was fine about not seeing again for several years to come. Call it “Magnolias Fatigue.”

But Director Lisa Gillespie had the cure for what ailed me – she cast well and paced the production so its two-plus hours in the fictionalized setting of 1980s Chinquapin, La., flew by with plenty of laughs and tears along the way. And Corbin Green’s add-on-room beauty salon (accompanied by his smooth lighting) is one of the talented designer’s best sets (Katie Delaney’s costumes are sharp too).

Steel Magnolias 3How about the actors? Well, each brings plenty to the proceedings.

Keri Pisapia (who was terrific in a very different role in Tennessee Women’s Theater Project’s Trying) creates a solid-as-a-rock characterization of beautician Truvy. Fellow BRT newcomer Cassie Hamilton is an endearing Annelle.

Linda Speir makes her Clairee funny and authoritative among other finely-formed aspects. Lynn Yates offers the right amount of curmudgeon in her Ouiser while still making her character more than a one-note portrayal.

Lori Bargas has just the right balance of spunk and sweetness as old-soul-in-a-young-body Shelby. And Kay Ayers is brilliant as Shelby’s understandably anxious mother M’Lynn. Ayers’ delivery of M’Lynn’s lines in the final scene is reason alone to see this production.

Steel Magnolias 5Good theater is a fresh experience no matter how familiar the story. I thank the folks involved with BRT’s Steel Magnolias for reminding me of that truth.

Steel Magnolias 4Steel Magnolias continues through Sept. 8 at the Boiler Room Theatre (The Factory at Franklin, Bldg. Six, 230 Franklin Rd.). Performances start at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. One Thrifty Thursday performance is scheduled for 8 p.m. Aug. 30, and a Sunday matinee for 2 p.m. Sept. 2. Tickets ($27; $25 for seniors and students; $21 for children under 12; matinee prices are $2, and all Tuesday shows are two tickets for $27; Thrifty Thursday tickets are $17 each) are available by calling (615) 794-7744 or visiting

Steel Magnolias 6*Photos by Rick Malkin courtesy Rick Malkin Photography and Boiler Room Theatre.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (