In the mood for a Southern­fried chestnut? When CATCO first announced a 2013­14 season dominated by well ­known works such as Steel Magnolias, I was crestfallen. It seemed a sign that financial constraints were forcing the once­edgy troupe to stick to the tried and true. That description certainly fits Robert Harling’s comedy­drama. Not only has it been turned into a 1989 film starring Sally Field and Julia Roberts, but the stage version has been making the regional rounds for years. My own first viewing came more than two decades ago at a local community theater, where I decided the play was funny until it descended into sentimentality. After hearing that CATCO was mounting a new production, I could only hope the professional troupe would be able to uncover enough new levels of humor or meaning to justify the exhumation. Well, it does and it doesn’t. Working under Steven C. Anderson’s sure­footed direction, a distinguished cast makes Harling’s banter funnier than ever. In the end, the laughs still drown in a swamp of sentimentality, but until then, they come with clock ­like regularity. Set in a hair salon in small­town Louisiana, Harling’s play eavesdrops on a group of women who meet regularly to beautify themselves and, more importantly, to share their trials and triumphs. Truvy Jones (Gail Griffith) is the proprietor; Annelle Dupuy (Kelly Strand) is her newly hired hairstylist. On our first visit to the establishment, the star customers are M’Lynn Eatenton (Sarah Behrens) and her daughter, Shelby (Andrea Schmitt), who is just hours away from becoming a married woman. Also present are the recently widowed Clairee Belcher (Josie Merkle) and the flinty Ouiser Boudreaux (Jackie Bates). All of the actors do a fine job of delivering the highly quotable lines with the kind of drawling Southern charm that takes the sting out of the harshest comments. And there are harsh comments aplenty, along with amused self­ evaluations. “If you’re trying to make me crazy,” M’Lynn tells her stubborn daughter at one point, “you are too late.” The M’Lynn/Shelby relationship remains at the center of the action throughout the play, whose scenes are spread across about three years. At a preview performance last week, one of the few criticisms that could be made was that the tension between the two didn’t come across as well as it could have, thanks largely to Schmitt’s understated portrayal. That problem could well be solved as the cast hones its performances. One problem that probably won’t be solved: Despite Strand’s endearing performance, Annelle goes through so many transformations during the course of the play that she seems like three or four different people. Blame the writing for that, which was also an issue in the previous production I saw. All of the action proceeds on Michael S. Brewer’s beautiful set, which depicts Truvy’s salon in flowery wallpaper and tones of tan and violet. Does CATCO’s polished production justify the familiar play’s resurrection? If you’re a fan of Southern comedy and don’t mind its ultimate detour into estrogen ­tinged sentimentality, it certainly does. CATCO will present Steel Magnolias through April 13 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday­Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $41 for Thursday and Sunday performances, $45 for Friday and Saturday. 614­469­0939 or Egos threaten to derail historical drama Feeling too adventurous for a time ­tested comedy from CATCO? Then you may be in the mood for Available Light’s latest. You never know what to expect from this troupe, which specializes in movement ­enriched pieces that push the envelope. One pitfall is that the troupe also has a tendency to lecture. Though that’s especially true of its company ­created works, it also becomes an issue in the current show, an off ­Broadway import that begins with an interesting premise. Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, the play bears the jaw­breaking title We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 -1915. Purporting to be a rehearsal for a show about the tragedy that has been called the first genocide of the 20th century, it opens as “Black Woman” (Shanelle Marie) faces the audience and bumbles her way through an introduction while her smiling cast mates watch on. Then, as the “rehearsal” continues, actors’ egos clash while they try to decide how to dramatize the German­ordered genocide that nearly decimated Namibia’s Herero tribe. When White Man (Jordan Fehr) gives himself the role of a German soldier writing home to his wife (Acacia Leigh Duncan), Another White Man (Matt Hermes) complains that he seems to have been relegated to the role of the “best friend.” Later, Black Man (Ben Jones) complains that Another Black Man (David Glover) doesn’t act black enough. In the midst of the clashes, important questions are raised. Do white actors have enough understanding to play African characters? For that matter, can African ­American actors claim to understand African characters? More centrally, how can anyone understand a historical event when the only surviving records were left by the victors—in this case, German soldiers? In the early scenes, director Matt Slaybaugh and his cast present the action in a silly, exaggerated style, like a satire of bad performance art. Later, during the show’s most compelling moments, things take on a more serious air. In one of the best interchanges, Black Woman is at first put off and then mesmerized when Another White Man improvises an impersonation of her grandmother that mixes racial stereotypes with grains of truth. Finally, both the script and the production take a turn for the really serious, ending with the suggestion that everyone—every white person, at least—is a Jim Crow ­style racist at heart. The questionable charge would be easier to take if the actors didn’t level it so self ­righteously, glaring at the audience in an accusatory manner. Though it ultimately takes things too far, Drury’s work has interesting things to say, and the Available Light production often stages them in an interesting and gloriously theatrical way. But it undercuts early scenes by taking an overly silly approach, and the ending wallows in preachy self­importance. Moreover, at 105­plus minutes—15 minutes longer than the off ­Broadway original—it could use some streamlining. Still, the show does give theatergoers plenty to talk about afterward. If you’re in the mood for a provocative adventure, this one fills the bill. Available Light will present We Are Proud to Present… through April 12 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday ­Saturday (except April 3). Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Tickets are $20 in advance, pay what you want at the door. 614­558­7408 or