It's astonishing how much of our identity is wrapped up in our hair. Samson depended on his luscious locks for strength; when Delilah gave the Biblical hero a buzz-cut, his virility instantly vanished. In the cult British movie Withnail & I, Danny the drug dealer spoke for an entire generation when he said, "Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain." And, of course, legions of follicly challenged people buy Rogaine and other hair restoration products every year.
For the six Southern belles who inhabit the fictitious town of Rectal, Texas, in Stale Magnolias, Sean Owens' flamboyant albeit flawed pompadour of a play, coiffure is the very (herbal) essence of life. It drives the characters' actions, conceals their secrets, and ultimately helps them find the strength to face the world. Owens' camp homage to 1980s screen romances like Steel Magnolias and Crimes of the Heart doesn't quite deliver on its promise of making the audience "dye laughing." But once the hairspray haze clears around the drag queen cast, it's possible to see that Stale Magnolias might offer more than the average exercise in transsexual performance kitsch: a gender-bending exploration of one of cross-dressing's key accessories — the wig.
Like the 1989 Julia Roberts vehicle from which it steals its name, Stale Magnolias centers on a group of Southern women who spend inordinate amounts of time having their pelts poofed at the local beauty parlor. Staged in a real, Mission District beauty salon — the Glama-Rama on South Van Ness — against a backdrop of cotton-candy–colored walls, shelves stocked with Bumble and bumble styling products, and retro hooded hair dryers, Owens' play focuses our attention on the art — and metaphorical significance — of big hair.
We're introduced to Last Chance Salon proprietress CC Chesterfield (played by a chirpy, blonde-mopped Julie Mitchell, the only biological female in the production) and her enthusiastic yet evasive new employee, Sugar Sweetly (a bubbly, peroxide-topped David Bicha). Soon, more Rectal residents appear. First up is Louisiana "Loos" Morales (Ric Lopes in butch yet elegant form), a radio DJ and Ice Capades audition hopeful who assaults Glama-Rama's wooden floor with her stiff auburn bangs, tight-fitting cropped crimson jumpsuit, and roller skates. Next comes the playwright himself in the guise of Fanny Chaffer, a decrepit, wheelchair-bound harpy whose towering inferno of a temper is matched only by her smokestack beehive. Arturo Galster's gorgeously faded beauty queen, Spuvina Fetlock, follows suit. Dressed in a gaudy, figure-embracing ensemble accented by a cascading mane of dirty blond ringlets, the character looks like a cross between a King Charles spaniel and the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. Last, but not least, is Jef Valentine's Raven Looney. Her status as Rectal media mogul and power bitch is made plain with her tawny hairsprayed helmet and emphatically made-up lips and eyes.
Baring freshly manicured talons, Owens' story unfolds as an episode of Dallas might if the '80s soap opera had been set amid the world of hairdressing rather than the high-stakes oil and cattle-ranching industries. Livestock does make a crucial appearance in the play, however. When an unfortunate accident involving a prize bull, the salon's water supply, and a dimwitted teenager (Raven's love child from an ill-fated tryst with a Hollywood celebrity of uncertain gender) causes male-pattern baldness in all the women, CC and her crew declare a state of "hair emergency." Trussed up at the Last Chance with nothing but hot dogs to eat and the salon's signature "sweet tea" to drink, the ladies lose their cool as well as their tresses. Accusations and wigs fly before peace returns to Rectal.
Wigmaker extraordinaire Jordan L'Moore's custom-made hairpieces provide the show with much of its personality, humor, and thematic weight. For one thing, it's rare to see actors so at one with their wigs. From Raven's Dynasty-era Joan Collins number to Fanny's quivering Marge Simpson 'do, the wigs underscore the personalities of their wearers perfectly. For another, the three kinds of wigs donned by each actor during the course of the play act as bold, visual representations of their characters' evolving psychological states. The carefully manicured bouffants of the opening scenes deftly signal the Texan status quo. When the world turns upside down for the characters following the accident with the water supply, so do the wigs. With their matted tufts and holes through which the actors' naturally cropped scalps peek, the second wigs are as hilarious as they are hideous. Meanwhile, at the end, Owens and Moore emphasize the characters' new-found empathy with a cavalcade of rainbow-colored toupees. Furthermore, in the case of one character — the roller-skating Loos — the unexpected loss of a wig leads to a powerful sense of self-discovery. It is at this moment that she embraces her true womanhood, even as she stands there looking extremely bald and butch. "Let 'em see the real me," she says as she skates off, pate gleaming, to her audition.
Not all the play's moments come off as convincingly. Taking on the quadruple roles of writer, co-producer, director, and actor may be Owens' hairiest problem. A hectic atmosphere prevails throughout as the actors garble their lines. This threatens to upset the rhythm of the show, as well as the meaning of many of Owens' feistiest put-downs such as "She's so old, there are cave drawings of her debutante ball" and "You're about as Latina as the nacho sauce at Taco Bell." Similarly disappointing is the use of the site-specific setting. What's the point of staging a play about a hair salon in a hair salon if you don't exploit the venue's eye-catching pink hairdryers, mirrors, and sinks to the full?
When he isn't sporting Fanny's voluminous wig, Owens has very little hair of his own. Lacking the necessary "aerials," he may have been unable to pick up signals from the cosmos advising him to hire an extra directorial brain to help smooth out the frizzies. Still, the production's veritable pelt-storm of incredible wig creations has a spell-binding effect on the viewer. There's magic in the hair after all.