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Steel Magnolias; Steel Magnolias

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STEEL MAGNOLIAS, Circle Theatre, and STEEL MAGNOLIAS, Billy Goat Experiment Theatre Company, at the Broadway Armory. Robert Harling's 1987 off-Broadway hit--a seriocomic study of six strong, sassy women at a southern beauty parlor--centers on the caring but contentious relationship between small-town socialite M'Lynn Eatonton and her diabetic daughter, Shelby. Torn between her desire to protect Shelby and her awareness of the girl's need for independence, M'Lynn disapproves of her daughter's decision to have a baby. But when childbirth impairs Shelby's fragile health, M'Lynn donates a kidney to try to save her life. (The story is inspired by the courage of Harling's own mother when faced with the death of his sister.) Supporting the Eatontons through their crisis are Truvy, the brassy, motherly beautician; Annelle, Truvy's born-again assistant; Clairee, a sharp-witted grand dame; and grouchy but good-hearted Ouiser, a twice-divorced senior with "more money than God."

Harling's play, which hasn't been revived much here since its 1988 run at the Royal George, is now being offered by two small non-Equity troupes. The results couldn't be more different. Circle Theatre's routine rendition, directed by Brett B. Kashanitz, is notable mainly for its detailed set, accurate down to the tile floor and rows of hair-care products. The actors work hard to suggest their characters' mutual affection but break a cardinal rule of stage comedy: never laugh at your own jokes. People do it in real life, of course, but in the heightened reality of theater nothing is more fatal to comic timing.

At the Billy Goat Experiment Theatre Company, David Weeks's one-man version of the play is one of the most unusual, effective shows in recent memory. Eschewing costumes, wigs, and set, Weeks plays all the roles with minimal but telling shifts in posture, gesture, vocal inflection, and facial expression. Weeks and director Todd Zaruba have carefully edited the script to focus on the work's intense emotional core--the unconditional love of parent for child. Weeks's understated, honest delivery enhances the material's dishy Golden Girls-style humor and its deep compassion. The result is less a play than virtuosic theatrical storytelling--hilarious, moving, and decidedly offbeat.

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