‘Steel Magnolias’ is more than just a chick play

“Steel Magnolias” is a chick flick, and the play from which the movie was adapted is a chick play.

“Steel Magnolias” is a chick flick, and the play from which the movie was adapted is a chick play.

Robert Harling’s story is about the group of women who gather at Truvy’s beauty salon in small-town Louisiana. Men are absent from the stage. They’re mentioned in the play, but only as lazy, TV-watching and gun-shooting deadbeats, even criminals.

But “Steel Magnolias” is more than just a chick play for Bill Huls, Renton Civic Theater’s artistic director and director

of the current production. “Steel Magnolias” is Hul’s professional directing debut.

For Huls, the play is personal. He sees a similarity between his mother and Shelby, the main character (played by Brenda Joyner in her RCT debut). Shelby has diabetes so bad she goes into diabetic attacks and is told not to have children. She also marries Jackson, a guy not thought much of by Truvy’s beauty parlor ladies.

But Shelby makes the best of life, refusing to slow down because of her medical condition. She has a baby despite the doctor’s warnings and suffers fatal consequences.

Shelby’s decision unhinges her overprotective mother (Debbie Fetherston, “Godspell” and others). But Shelby insists having a baby is the one thing that will make her happy. Even when she’s suffering attacks or awaiting a kidney transplant, Shelby rejects pity.

Huls’s mother was the same way. She was born three months premature and fought cancer for almost 18 years before dying from lung cancer 10 years ago. But she was always happy about life.

“She never let anybody tell her ‘Your life is over, your life is bad,’” Huls says.

Just like Shelby. Huls says he directed the play as a tribute to his mother, and he injects her fun-loving spirit into “Steel Magnolias.”

The nearly full house at Renton Civic Theater on opening night laughed loud and often at the beauty shop banter and barbs.

The play takes place solely in Truvy’s beauty salon, which is also her home. But with beaded curtains, salon chairs, plants, coffee cups and an afghan-draped couch, the set doesn’t get boring. A small Christmas tree and other decorations liven up the winter months.

Three years pass in Truvy’s salon. Time is marked by Truvy’s changing hairdos: tight red ringlets, then straight, then dark brown curls and finally a deep red bob.

With her ever-changing hair and a leopard-spotted shirt, Michele Greenwood Bettinger (“Something’s Afoot”) plays the gossipy Truvy to a T.

In the opening scene, Truvy shares her philosophy with new hire Annelle.

“There is no such thing as natural beauty,” she says in a heavy southern accent. “Do not scrimp on anything. Use as much hairspray as you like.”

Cassie Townsend (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) is also spot-on as Annelle, who begins as a jittery newlywed (or is she?), then becomes a partier and finally a born-again Christian.

Robin Weakland (“Something’s Afoot”) adds spice to the mix as the football-loving Clairee.

All six of RCT’s Steel Magnolias play their roles well, and each earns lots of laughs, especially the stage-stealing Valerie Reinking (most recently “Little Shop of Horrors”) who plays Ouiser, the town sourpuss.

Ouiser’s excuse: “I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for the last 40 years!”

Ouiser’s zingers are some of the best: “Don’t try to get on my good side, Truvy. I no longer have one!”

But all the characters have zingers and catchy lines. So many that they seem to come too fast at times, making the few banterless moments feel empty, like, did someone forget her line?

Another low point is M’Lynn’s final tragic speech of screams after Shelby’s death. Her words and sobs feel forced, coming off more cheese than real.

But Huls cuts the cheese quickly (maybe too quickly) by playing up the ending’s comic side — just as his mother would have liked.

“That’s just the way my mom was — she always found the funny in everything,” he says.

Emily Garland can be reached at emily.garland@reporternewspapers.com or (425) 255-3484, x. 5052.