Steel Magnolias at Phoenix

(This review appeared in The East African 5th-11th October 2013 under the title Comedy of Errors on Stage)

June Gachui, Stella Njeri, Fridah Muhindi and Karen "Kaz" Lucas in Steele Magnolias Photo: Nationmedia
June Gachui, Stella Njeri, Fridah Muhindi and Karen “Kaz” Lucas in Steele Magnolias
Photo: Nationmedia

Robert Harling’sSteel Magnolia,opened on Friday 20th September for a two-week run at Phoenix Theatre. Harling wrote the play in 1987 as a way of dealing with the pain caused by the death of his sister, who suffered from diabetes.

June Gachui as Truvy
June Gachui as Truvy

I watched theFriday 27th September show, which was fraught with calamity.The play, set in Truvy’s (June Gachui) hair salon, starts off very cheerily, with the planning and preparation for Shelby’s (Fridah Muhindi) wedding.

Thirty-five minutes into the show, there was a power blackout and no back-up generator. The crew, having lit the stage with candles, informed the audience that they were in the process of calling Kenya Power and that if the electricity was not re-connected in the next five minutes the play would continue in the candle light, which it did.

Kaz as Quiser
Kaz as Quiser

What was most uncanny about the blackout was that it happened preciously at the point where Shelby’s medical condition is revealed to the other cast members and the play begins to take a more sombre note. The actresses were however disadvantaged by the dimly lit stage as their facial expressions were not visible in the obscurity, giving the audience, for the duration of the blackout, the impression of listening to radio drama.

Most disadvantaged was Karen Lucas (stage name Kaz) who played the part of Quiser. A character’s greatest impact on the audience is often felt at the character’s first stage entrance.Lucas made her first entry in this semi-darkness missing the opportunityfor her character to make an impressionon the audience.

The electricity was re-connected just before Act III, which begins with a blackout due to a short circuit caused by Shelby’s radio. If only the Kenya Power blackout had coincided with this one!

Inasmuch as the greatest impact of the character is felt at the first entry on the stage, I have very rarely seen an entry as impressive as that made by Muhindi when she enters the scene from stage left, carrying a bouquet of baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata). Playing the delicate and fragile but strong-willed Shelby, more than any other character, she embodied the ‘Steel Magnolia’. And not only was her performance consistently organic, her final exit was such as I have never seen before. Without over-doing it, there was such a sense of foreboding in her departure that whether or not you knew the plot you got the sense Shelby was not just leaving the stage but leaving the play altogether.

Fridah Muhindi as Shelby
Fridah Muhindi as Shelby

As if the blackout in Act I was not enough disaster for one night, in Act III Gachui’s foot made a hole through a step as she walked to a chair situated back-stage right. The whole cast remained composed and not a stutter nor a snigger was heard as they said, “sorry Truvy” to which Gachui, casually responded, in the jovial and upbeat comportment of Truvy, “Oh, not to worry, this place is so old anyway.”

Annelle was played by Shiviske Shivisi who had the drawback of acting opposite an actress as seasoned as Gachui. In the opening scene, instead of a shy and self-conscious Annelle, nervous about her first day working at the salon, what I saw was a self-conscious Shivisi, running through her words with poor diction and no dynamics, seemingly nervous about playing opposite Gachui.

Kebi Gethaiga on the other hand managed to portray a very convincing introverted M’Lynn and together with Muhindi, a complex mother-daughter relationship.

Stella Njeri as Clairee
Stella Njeri as Clairee

Stella Njeri did not come across as the eccentric, wealthy, upper middle-class woman from Lousiana who buys a radio station on a whim or for that matter, just the universal, wealthy, upper middle-class woman. Being so self-concious, Clairee’s character simply didn’t come through. Throughout the performance, we had Njeri on stage saying Clairee’s lines. Like Shivisi, she raced through her lines and as a result, her performance lacked dynamism and many punch lines were lost.

Given that Lucas made her first entrance in the dark, it was not until Act III that Quiser’s character emerged.

The director, Nyambura Waruingi retained the original setting- the American state of Louisiana- and did not adapt it to a Kenyan setting as is often the case. But perhaps due to the now very widespread influence of Americanism, the cast members were convincing in accent and demeanour and save for the fact that the cast was one of mixed ability, it was by and large well delivered.

© Anne Manyara 2013

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