Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, which opened on September 20 for a two-week run at Nairobi’s Phoenix Theatre, was full of calamity, especially on September 27, when I watched it.
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.
The play, set in Truvy’s hair salon, starts off very cheerily, with the planning and preparation for Shelby’s (Fridah Muhindi) wedding.
On the day I watched it, 35 minutes into the show, there was a power blackout and no back-up generator. The crew, having lit up the stage with candles, informed the audience that they were calling Kenya Power and that if the power was not restored in the next five minutes the play would continue in the candle light, which it did.
What was most uncanny about the blackout was that it happened at the point where Shelby’s medical condition is revealed to the other cast members and the play begins to take on a more sombre note.
The actresses were, however, disadvantaged by the dimly lit stage as their facial expressions were not easy to make out, giving the audience, for the duration of the blackout, the impression of listening to radio drama.
The most disadvantaged was Karen Lucas (Kaz), who played the part of Quiser, the town’s rich curmudgeon.
A character’s greatest impact on the audience is often felt at the his or her first stage entry. Kaz made her first entry in this semi-darkness.
The electricity was restored just before Act III, which, incidentally, begins with a blackout due to a short circuit caused by Shelby’s radio. If only the 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 of Fridah Muhindi. She enters the stage from the 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 embodies the Steel Magnolia. And not only was her performance consistently organic, her final exit was such as I have never seen before. Without overdoing 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 exiting the stage but leaving the play altogether.
As if the blackout in Act I were not enough disaster for one night, in Act III, June Gachui’s foot made a hole through a step as she walked to a chair at the back.
But this did not affect the presentation, as the cast remained composed. They said, “Sorry, Truvy,” to which she responded, in the jovial and upbeat comportment of the character: “Oh, not to worry, this place is so old anyway.”
Shiviske Shivisi, who played Annelle, had the misfortune 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.
But Stella Njeri did not come across as the eccentric, wealthy, upper middle class woman from Lousiana, Clairee, who buys a radio station on a whim or, for that matter, just the universal, wealthy, upper middle-class woman. Being so self-conscious, Clairee’s character simply did not come through. Like Shivisi, Njeri raced through her lines and, as a result, her performance lacked dynamism and many punch lines were lost.
Given that Kaz 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 widespread influence of Americanism, the cast were convincing in accent and demeanour and, even with a cast of mixed ability, the play was well delivered.