Story: Chinquapin isn’t the biggest city in Louisiana, but its residents get by OK. A group of women in particular keep up on the local news through their regular visits to Truvy’s beauty shop, which her husband set up in the carport of their home. Truvy has the parlor stocked with the latest magazines for ideas about hair, fashion and other subjects.

A young woman named Annelle applies for a job with Truvy and does well enough for the owner to hire her. She’s a sweet girl but a bit mysterious. She hesitates when Ouiser, one of the regular customers, asks her if she’s married. “This is not a hard question,” says Ouiser while awaiting Annelle’s reply.

Other ladies stopping in include Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn. They need to look perfect for Shelby’s impending wedding day. M’Lynn frets about Shelby’s condition, not just because she's her only daughter but also since Shelby’s diabetic and needs to monitor her blood sugar. M’Lynn’s concerned as well about her headstrong daughter’s desire to have children, even though Shelby’s physicians have warned against that.

Also on hand is Clairee, widow of the town’s long-time high school football coach. Clairee misses her late husband but still enjoys going to the football games to root on her favorite team. She’s also interested when she learns that the local radio station is on the market to be sold.

Over the course of three years, these soul sisters share their joys and sorrows as they rely on their mutual love to give them the strength they need to bolster each other in times of travail as well as enjoying life’s pleasures.

Highlights: Stray Dog Theatre artistic director Gary Bell’s rendition of Robert Harling’s affecting drama is a well-crafted tribute to the show’s 30th anniversary and a nicely wrapped holiday package for Stray Dog’s audiences as well. Bell’s studied direction and his agreeable cast’s winning portrayals make Steel Magnolias sparkle like a favorite Christmas tree ornament.

Other Info: Bell saw the original production on Broadway in 1987, which featured Margo Martindale as Truvy. Several notable actresses have performed in various editions of Harling’s love letter to his own late sister, including Barbara Rush, June Lockhart, Carole Cook, Joely Richardson, Rosemary Harris, Christine Ebersole, Frances Sternhagen and Marsha Mason. The 1989 film version had a stellar cast comprised of Dolly Parton, Shirley Maclaine, Julia Roberts, Darryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Sally Field.

No surprises there. Harling’s sweet, funny and poignant story offers a half-dozen sterling roles for women, each presented with affection and endearment. That goes for the cantankerous Ouiser (“I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years”) and the independent Shelby as well as the good-hearted Annelle and the rest of the ladies.

Bell has assembled a strong cast who nurture their roles with nuance and fine comic timing while also mining the nuggets of tender drama along the way. They perform on Josh Smith’s suitably ramshackle set, which features drab paneling from some 1960s rathskeller that serves a functional purpose in a converted carport, with appropriate accoutrements for a beauty salon.

Tyler Duenow adds lighting that draws attention to the chairs around which hair styling, gossiping and serious discussions occur, and Justin Been furnishes the accompanying sound design with pop music standards of the ‘80s and the voice of the local station's DJ (Kira Somach). Bell and Eileen Engel provide the well-appointed costumes, from the elegant attire of the professional M’Lynn to the worn togs of the cash-strapped Annelle.

Sarah Gene Dowling nicely fills the bill as the weary but willing Truvy, who dispenses kindness while deadpanning jokes about her layabout husband and rowdy sons. Liz Mischel shows humor as the practical, good-natured Clairee, who keeps her razor wit sharp by countering the caustic, grouchy Ouiser (“You’re unusually happy today, Ouiser. Did you run over a small child?”).

Andra Harkins makes optimal use of the juicy role of Ouiser, storming into the salon with bravado as she rails against the incessant gunplay of her neighbor, who happens to be M’Lynn’s husband and Shelby’s father, but also having a soft spot for her aged dog Rex and even some love for the other gals.

Jenni Ryan shows M’Lynn’s deep love for her daughter as well as stern, maternal concern for the girls’ fragile health, while Alison Linderer succeeds at depicting the steady development of Annelle from throwaway wife to party girl to born-again Christian, maintaining her good nature along the way.

As Shelby, Eileen Engel convincingly displays the free spirit who chafes at her mother’s protection as much as she respects and admires M’Lynn. She shows Shelby’s unfailing high spirits and good nature even in the face of adversity, epitomizing the indomitable communal spirit of these women.

Bell directs with a sure and steady touch, maintaining the focus on Harling’s fun-loving but also tender script. True to its title, Steel Magnolias is a testament to the enduring strength of the bond shared by the fine ladies of Chinquapin.

Play: Steel Magnolias

Group: Stray Dog Theatre

Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue

Dates: December 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16

Tickets: $25-$30; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of John Lamb

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