As soon as I saw the cast that director Julie Ahasay had assembled for “Steel Magnolias” I looked forward to the production that opened Thursday night at the NorShor Theatre. I was eager to see what those six actresses would do with these parts and I was not disappointed, because each breathes fresh life into these familiar characters.

Truvy Jones (Mary Fox) has just hired Annelle Dupup (Mallory Polivka) to work in her beauty salon, where Saturday mornings are reserved for the ladies of the neighborhood: Clairee Belcher (Ellie Martin), Ouiser Boudreaux (Pat Isbell) and M’Lynn Eatenton (Christa Schulz). Then there is M’Lynn’s daughter, Shelby (Louisa Scorich), who is being all dolled up for her wedding day in the opening scene.

Every time I see “Steel Magnolias” I am always surprised by how much of it is not about what it is about (namely, Shelby and, well, you know…). This time I was really struck by how the humor tends to cut at a crazy angle across whatever is being talked about, so you rarely see the jokes coming. It is always like seeing the show again for the first time.

Fox’s big-hearted Truvy gets plenty of laughs, but I could not stop watching her style Scorich’s impressive coiffure in that first scene. I bet there were many in the audience interested in trying to schedule appointments with Fox for early next week.

Martin’s Clairee is the funniest I have seen, which explains why in the final scene when she gets the biggest laugh of the evening it was so big it overwhelmed a whole bunch of lines. Isbell made Ouiser frumpy and grumpy, artfully using pointed looks and emphatic gestures to visually punctuate her lines to set up her laughs.

But there are more than laughs here. There are so many lines Schulz’s M’Lynn utters where you can feel the unspoken meaning just below the surface of the words. This makes it all the more powerful in the final scene when the time for leaving anything unsaid has passed. Every time mother and daughter butt heads, Scorich really underscores that Shelby is M’Lynn’s daughter, making the tale’s tragic twists of fate seem almost inevitable.

I particularly liked Polivka’s Annelle with her carefully accented monotone, because this is a character who can come off as a crazy Christian in the second act and end up crossing the line. But Polivka’s Annelle was so earnest and unaffected I never thought she was insensitive or heartless when she speaks her piece in that last scene.

A decade ago when the Playhouse last did “Steel Magnolias,” Martin and Isbell played M’Lynn and Truvy. It is interesting to think of these other actresses progressing through these three generations of women in future productions.

I would love to see Scorich and/or Polivka playing Clairee and/or Ouiser way down the road, not just because it would be fascinating to watch but also because I would be over 100 years old at that point (so I probably won’t be reviewing it).

If you go

  • What: “Steel Magnolias” by Robert Harling
  • Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday Jan. 30-Feb. 8, and 2 p.m. Feb. 9
  • Tickets: Start at $30, available at duluthplayhouse.org or 218-733-7555.

Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the News Tribune.