Robert Harling has written a number of works populated mainly by female characters that show a deft understanding of his subject matter.
While the "not about us without us" crowd might frown upon a man writing fairly exclusively about women, Bucks County Playhouse's engaging, star-studded production of Harling's 1987 Steel Magnolias teems with realities that transcend the localized, historical flair of this play.
Steel Magnolias obliquely refers to the six women of Harling's cast, three generations of resilient Louisiana small-town wives and mothers who congregate regularly at Truvy's beauty salon. The central character Shelby (an endearing Clea Alsip) graciously wrecks her body (literally, she dies) to have one child, an impulse today often suspended by careers and advanced degrees and then suddenly embraced with round after round of eleventh-hour treatments and hope.
Newcomer Annelle (Lucy DeVito) escapes one scandal by moving (and hiding her life) only to create more ill repute running around partying, to later cover-up that bad past with an overindulgence in religion (we never see this anymore).
Best frenemies Ouiser (Jessica Walter) and Clairee (Susan Sullivan) bicker and insult one another while plying advice and gossip (and delivering Harling's quips and one-liners with expert timing). The strength of Shelby's mother M'Lynn (the ageless Patricia Richardson, who anchors the ensemble with her presence) provides the wisdom and sensibility of experience while nonetheless raging against the tragic injustices of life.
Marsha Mason's smooth direction navigates the episodic nature of the script, which spans several years depicting a marriage, a pregnancy, a death, these events grounded by the familiar, reassuring appeal of Lauren Helpern's beauty salon set.
I heard a couple at intermission describe the play as "dated," likely referring to lines about Liz Taylor and Princess Di, but perhaps also noting that outside of beauty-shop talk by Truvy (a charming Elaine Hendrix), these women rarely mention work, careers or education.
Does the content of their conversations ever pass the stipulation of the Bechdel "test"? Nope. They talk incessantly about husbands, boyfriends, sons and lovers. As women do and will in real life, even if not in art anymore.
But from Harling's perspective - and from what he has created here - is an outsider's perspective as a man (brother, and son) who has no doubt witnessed, if not inflicted, at least some small measure of the grief these women experienced from the men in their lives. And this affirming production gives full measure to a standpoint that shows the strength of the women who deal with it.