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Flawed but Important "Magnolias"

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In the last scene of "Steel Magnolias," one of the characters announces that laughing through tears is her favorite emotion. It's a statement that resonates with people. The story of six Southern women philosophizing about life in a hair salon celebrates that complicated feeling onstage and, famously, onscreen as well.

Accordingly, one of the biggest challenges for the Living Word Stage Company in its production of "Steel Magnolias," running through Nov. 19 at Pine Camp Cultural Arts Center, was to reinvent the characters so the cast wouldn't be doing movie karaoke.

In that regard, they were wonderfully successful. Rhonda Jackson-Smith makes M'Lynn, the long-suffering mother, more aware of her own flaws than Sally Field's version. Erin Nollie's Shelby, whose failure to deal with her own limitations leads to disaster, plays saucier than Julia Roberts' spacey self-absorption.

The Living Word Theater Company, now in residence at Pine Camp, is an African-American group. New opportunities for humor come from the small modifications they made to the script. One character, the women say, has suffered more than Marvin Gaye (instead of Elizabeth Taylor).

As the characters grow and change over the course of the evening, the cast delivers serious dramatic acting as well as biting comedy to illuminate their rich complexities.

The broad strokes are all there, but the devil, of course, is in the details. The set is a nicely detailed salon interior, but the costumes are uninspired, and the lighting and sound are a little rough.

There were muffled lines and snags in the timing, and it was halfway through the first scene before the actors slowed down enough to clearly deliver their words. It could have been opening-night jitters, but it's the kind of thing firm directing can correct.

The show starts to gel when Shelby, ably played by Nollie, takes the stage. She most fully inhabits her character, and the others draw off her energy. Despite the nuts-and-bolts difficulties, however, the cast had much of the audience in tears by the end.

The next play on the company's schedule is "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," by Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright August Wilson. The productions aren't yet as polished as something you'd see at Barksdale or the Firehouse, but Living Word is the only company that can really lay claim to this kind of important work.

Here's hoping the quality of the product catches up with the importance of the project. S

Living Word's "Steel Magnolias" runs through Nov. 19 at Pine Camp Cultural Arts Center. For tickets and times, check out www.livingwordstage.com or call 355-2187. Tickets are $20.

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