There's one problem every production of "Steel Magnolias" must struggle to overcome: "Steel Magnolias" is not a good play.
It's two hours of plotless small-talk. Everything interesting happens off-stage; we only hear about it when the characters chat about it later. It's a comedy with no funny lines, a drama with no conflict.
The appeal of the often-produced play comes almost entirely from its last few minutes, in which something very sad happens -- off-stage, of course.
Even that sad ending, the play's entire reason for existing, is less effective now than it used to be, because almost everyone who sees the play knows what's going to happen.
Still, a strong cast in current production of "Steel Magnolias" elevates the material, and turns Robert Harling's tired play into a passably entertaining, though not invigorating, evening of theater.
The titular "magnolias" are six women from a small town in Louisiana who seem to spend most of their time in a local beauty parlor. They sitting around talking about their kids, parents, husbands, boyfriends and pets. That's pretty much it.
The actors in the Players production -- Amanda Heisey, Ellie Pattison, Cullen White, Leona Collesano, Patti O'Berg and Betty Robinson -- all succeed in making their characters real and mostly succeed in making them likable.
The only exception is Robinson as Ouiser, the resident curmudgeon. Too much of the time, Robinson's Ouiser is just downright hateful, totally charmless, and it's hard to see why the other women tolerate her. But Robinson nonetheless delivers a solid characterization of a nasty woman.
The best thing about Harling's script is that he avoids the trap of portraying small-town Southerners from the South as stereotypical hayseed yahoos, the way "Greater Tuna" and countless other bad Southern-themed shows do. Harling treats the characters with dignity, and the actors here imbue them with adequate doses of charm.
Collesano as Truvy, the beauty parlor's owner, and Pattison as M'Lynn are generally more charismatic than their castmates, but all six actors have strong moments.
That's vital, because "Steel Magnolias' depends entirely on the actors' getting us to like these women enough that we get misty-eyed at the tragic ending.
Director Bob Trisolini moves the actors fluidly around the wide-open stage and keeps the pace as lively as possible given the low-key script.
One thing Trisoloni and his cast can't do is make this alleged comedy funny. There are chuckles throughout, but in two hours of wise-cracks and one-liners there's not one belly-laugh. Just to give you an idea: when one character says someone is "so stupid that she thinks Sherlock Holmes is a subdivision," it draws the biggest laugh of the evening.
The actors muddle through, and make the audience care for, and care about, the women they portray, and they sidestep the mawkishness that often marks the ending of this play.
It'd be great to see this same cast handle worthy material.
Details: Through Sept. 29, the Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $25 adults, $12 children. Information: 941-365-2494, www.theplayers.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.