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STAGE REVIEW

‘Steel Magnolias’ revels in strong cast of Southern belles

Kathy St. George (left) and Marie Polizzano in Stoneham Theatre’s “Steel Magnolias.’’ Kathy St. George (left) and Marie Polizzano in Stoneham Theatre’s “Steel Magnolias.’’ (Carla Donaghey)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / September 19, 2011

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STONEHAM - Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias’’ is an oversized slice of sugary Southern pie: momentarily enjoyable, but way too sweet. What saves the current Stoneham Theatre production from complete sugar shock is director Paula Plum’s determination to keep her ensemble light without being flippant and sincere without dipping too far into saccharine.

Plum, an award-winning actress herself, knows the only way to make Harling’s Hallmark card lines work is to cast actresses who can inhabit this crowd of Southern belles and make them their own.

Led by the extraordinary Kathy St. George as M’Lynn, the cast also includes Marie Polizzano as M’Lynn’s sickly but beautiful daughter Shelby, Sarah deLima as the wealthy widow Clairee, Sheriden Thomas as the feisty Ouiser, Lydia Barnett-Mulligan as the goofy runaway Annelle, and Kerry Dowling as the no-nonsense beauty parlor proprietor Truvy.

While this group may not erase the memory of the star-studded movie cast, which included Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, and Darryl Hannah, the intermission conversation among the women in the audience centered on this ensemble’s unique touches, and the actresses’ ability to pull us into their small Louisiana town gossip.

Set within the confines of Truvy’s beauty parlor, created here by designer Jenna McFarland Lord with a wonderful sense of detail as well as a suggestion of the bigger world outside, “Steel Magnolias’’ suggests that women mark important moments in their lives with a wash and set.

Truvy sets the tone herself when she says, “There’s no such thing as natural beauty.’’ Although Truvy’s shop also becomes a refuge and gathering place where these women can be vulnerable with each other, Harling always sticks to the shallows. Plum’s women fight against Harling’s slick and superficial dialogue, with Polizzano offering an unadorned and gently sincere Shelby, while St. George delivers the play’s tearjerker speech with such simplicity, Harling should send her a thank you note for finding the fear, disappointment, and loneliness he didn’t know how to put into words.

“Steel Magnolias’’ is a cliche, but Plum and company find the essential bonds that connect these women.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.

STEEL MAGNOLIAS

Play by: Robert Harling. Directed by Paula Plum

Set, Jenna McFarland Lord. Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. Lights, Daniel H. Jentzen. At Stoneham Theatre. Through Oct. 2. Tickets: $44-$48, 781-279-2200, stonehamtheatre.org.