In a Cheektowaga dining room with a dropped ceiling, paper tablecloths and a whooshing HVAC system, a great American tragicomedy is playing out.
There is something about the venue for Kyle LoConti's marvelous production of "Steel Magnolias," which opened Sept. 21 in a Desiderio's Dinner Theatre production in Bobby J's Italian American Grille, perfectly suited to the material.
The play, set entirely in a makeshift Louisiana salon in a former garage, is an anachronism within an anachronism. So it helps that it's presented in the old-fashioned setting of dinner theater, where cocktails and plates of crispy calamari, chicken marsala and mushroom ravioli are whisked to tables during the hour-and-a-half preceding the show.
The fare is a notch better than what you'd expect from most Buffalo red sauce joints. Even so, the production outshines the food.
When the lights go up and we see the women of playwright Robert Harling's imagination materialize through a fog of hair spray, it all feels preordained: The right time, the right place and the right mood for this deeply melodramatic story about the vitality and vulnerability of southern women in the 1980s.
Many community theater productions of this show feature wigs with humans attached as an afterthought. And while the wigs are there -- and truly spectacular to behold -- there is only a slight whiff of amateurishness about the performances here. LoConti has coaxed a base level of credibility from this cast that helps the production go down smoothly and, in its devastating final scene, move theatergoers to tears.
Buffalo stage veteran Lisa Ludwig, sporting a decidedly '80s bouffant, plays salon owner Truvy, whose client Shelby (the appealing Bethany Burrows) is struggling with health troubles. Ludwig's performance, though a a bit broad at times, stands in smart contrast to Shelby's anxiety-riddled mother M'Lynn (Lisa Hinca). And much of Harling's best color commentary comes from salon habitues Clairee (Maureen Anne Porter) and Ouiser (Mary McMahon), each of whom delivers well. In the comic relief category, Porter shines especially brightly.
As newcomer Annelle, Justyne Harris overplays her character's discomfort but soon eases into a more credible portrayal. She does deliver, however, with one of the play's more memorable lines: "I promise that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair!"
Those who have seen the 1989 film adaptation of the play starring Julia Roberts and Sally Field will notice a much more streamlined story and one, importantly, entirely devoid of men. In Harling's writing, men exist only as absurd abstractions -- people who blindly shoot guns into the bushes, take off on endless hunting trips or abandon their wives with no warning.
The sense of camaraderie in the stage version of "Steel Magnolias" therefore leaves a much deeper impression. And LoConti's sensitive direction does not linger too long on the play's many Lifetime movie moments of melodrama, focusing our attention instead on the inner pain and collective vitality of these six southern women.
Some of the more jaded theatergoers among us may not have expected to find themselves tearing up over their Styrofoam containers of leftover veal Parmesan, but such is the power of this play and production.
As Shelby's character so memorably says, "I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special."
Desiderio's Dinner Theatre stretches those 30 minutes into an entire evening.
3 stars (out of four)
"Steel Magnolias" runs through December 3 in a Desiderio's Dinner Theatre production in Bobby J's Italian American Grille, 204 Como Park Blvd., Cheektowaga. Tickets are $46 to $56, depending on the entree. Call 395-3207 or visit mybobbyjs.com.