By Bridgette M. Redman
The Great Escape Stage Company works hard to provide a good experience for its audience. The volunteers are friendly, ushers are introduced by name, the environment is convivial both before the show and during intermission.
The shows selected are ones that are audience pleasers, such as the current “Steel Magnolias.” There is a feeling of community as the audiences are engaged with one another and enthusiasm permeates the place.
On opening night, despite an audience that was eager to support the show, the performance suffered. The actors often stumbled over their lines, called people by the wrong name and forgot what they were supposed to be saying.
“Steel Magnolias” is popular among audiences because Robert Harling’s script is full of charm and humor. Truly’s beauty parlor is a place where women gather and share their most important life moments along with the more mundane ones. It is a snapshot of life and shows how several very different women can create deep connections over a lifetime.
While some intense study time with the script can fix the stumbled line problems of opening night, only more rehearsals are likely to fix the slow delivery and enable the actors to pick up cues more quickly. It is a script that is meant to sparkle, not to plod. There are too many long pauses between lines. These are women who are energetic and are comfortable around each other. They should be nearly speaking over top of each other, not carefully waiting for each person to finish a line before beginning the next.
The actors also struggled with finding the right comic timing for lines that are memorable and genuinely funny. Some of this would have been aided by a greater commitment to distinct characters and to embracing their quirky nature in the subtext as well as the textual references. The audience needs to be able to see that there are strong, genuine connections between characters, and not just be told about it in the lines.
Director Randy Lake chose to modernize the 1987 play, setting it in 2014. This worked in some ways and not in others. While many of the lines were updated to have pictures on cell phones, references to the year and to modern technology, too much else still felt like it was in the ’80s. The music and movie references all dated the show as did the references to Princess Grace and Julia Roberts.
Cell phones also add new challenges to a show. Why would family members call Truly’s shop phone to reach M’Lynn or Shelby when they both have cell phones that we’ve already seen? Also, by setting the opening scene in 2014, the later scenes move into 2015 and 2016 and it is challenging to predict what would be playing on a boom box (and why that and not an mp3 player?) two years from now. Ultimately, very little was gained by modernizing the play and it lost some of its logic.
The Great Escape Stage Company has a flexible space in their storefront location. This show was set up in proscenium style and the set was a well-designed one that made use of multiple levels and functioned well as a beauty parlor with its reclining chairs, sinks and hair blowers. While no one in the program is credited with design, several people are listed as contributing to the construction and painting of this well-made set: Ken Koberstein, Tim Lake, Paul Rauth, Ed Kernish, Gayland Spaulding, Georgia Marsh and the cast.
The Great Escape clearly cares about its audience and is making choices to create a good experience and community. They put on stage actors that the audience remembers and enjoyed from previous shows. What it needs now are actors who can show a greater commitment to their characters, who make bolder choices and who can connect. This starts with them knowing their lines and cues and then building upon that to create something greater than the narration of a script.
Bridgette M. Redman reviews local theater productions for EncoreMichigan.com. Follow them on Facebook.