No southern shrinking violets

Cranbrook Community Theatre's "Steel Magnolias" is Southern Gothic set in the salon.

Annelle (Hannah Van der Roest — left) gets the third degree from Ouiser (Joanne Wilkinson — right) while M’Lynn (Michelle McCue) looks on in consternation.

So what’s a female southron to do? Where can a gal go to get away from the cloying embrace of Louisiana social life, the sofa slug she’s married to, the dog with the mysterious skin ailment? Where can she escape to for a short, refreshing while, to re-emerge with her hair looking fabulous?

You are entering women’s territory when you enter Truvy’s home-based beauty salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana. Check your cares at the door.

In “Steel Magnolias,” a new, tightly performed Community Theatre production, secrets will be revealed, parsed and cross-referenced, sometimes to great turmoil in the soul — but nothing will interfere with the ability to do good hair.

The outside world, with all its lummox menfolk, is a loud place outside Truvy’s door. The neighbourhood echoes with the sound of gunshots and barking dogs. The telephone makes jangling, insistent demands. But in the sanctuary of Truvy’s salon, our heroines can laugh it away with well-placed phrases. They bring their unseen neighbours to life with devastating gossip. They can jibe each other with love and understanding, all the while planning the perfect wedding reception.

Who makes up this haven of female camaraderie, this pride of lionesses? There’s Truvy (Susan Hanson) den mother and stylist-in-chief, who is fuelled by news of romance and unrequited love. Annelle (Hannah Van der Roest) is the waif who came in from the cold, as stylist number two. Clairee (Elizabeth Ross), mayor’s widow and football fanatic, with a gift for the bon mot and perfect conversational gloss. There’s Ouiser (Joanne Wilkinson), the cantankerous eccentric. And there is the gracious M’Lynn and her elegant daughter Shelby (Michelle McCue and Kirsten Kasner), around whose fates the play ultimately turns.

And then there’s the hair itself, which is coiffed, curled, cut, styled and shaped throughout the play, as though it were running a sideline commentary in the secret sign language of the stylist, straight out of the pages of “Women’s Day,” or “Southern Hair.”

But as it turns out, you cannot just check your troubles at Truvy’s door. We start to see it coming — the bottom occasionally sags underneath all that sunny, wise-cracking eccentric southern pleasantry, and the dark gothic under-current is revealed. That’s “gothic” as in “Southern Gothic.” Watch out! Everyday situations that we joke about one day are actually poised on edge of tragedy. In the irony of the Southern Gothic genre, you can see tragedy coming from a great distance away, but you are seemingly powerless to prevent its arrival.

Director Bob McCue has brought forth great performances from his sextet of actors. They disappear into their characters and re-emerge larger than life, with distinctive personalities and compelling story arcs of their own. Of particular note is the acting of Kasner and Michelle McCue, whose co-dependent mother-daughter relationship drives “Steel Magnolias” to a very southern conclusion.

“Steel Magnolias”  opens Friday, Nov. 16, at 8 p.m. in the Studio Stage Door in Cranbrook. It continues Saturday night, Nov. 17, and on November 21 to 24 and 28 to 30, closing on December 1. Directed by Bob McCue, the cast features Susan Hanson, Michelle McCue, Kirsten Kasner, Elizabeth Ross, Joanne Wilkinson, and Hannah Van der Roest. Tickets are $13 for CCT members/$15 non-members, available at Lotus Books.