In 1987, Robert Harling spent 10 days writing a play in honor of his sister (and best friend) and her passing from diabetes. Today, STEEL MAGNOLIAS has become an enduring story of female friendship told with an irresistible mix of laughter and tears. The story has been told many times and in many ways including the off-Broadway play starring Delta Burke, Christine Ebersole, Rebecca Gayheart, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen and Lily Rabe, the 1989 movie starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts, and the 2012 revamped version for Lifetime TV starring Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad, Adepero Oduye and Condola Rashad. In December, 2012, STEEL MAGNOLIAS marked its 25th birthday at a starry benefit reading of the play at the Lucille Lortel Theatre as performed by Celia Keenan-Bolger, Annie Potts, Blythe Danner, Margo Martindale and Sara Stiles. Today, the iconic stage play continues to be performed all over the world.
The movie version of STEEL MAGNOLIAS launched Harling’s career as a screenwriter, and since then he’s written The First Wives Club, created the TV series GCB, and he has written the book for a musical version of his 1991 comedy hit Soapdish that will star Kristin Chenoweth. In a recent interview, Harling stated, “the play is the touchstone that keeps me close to my sister and her spirit. A very cherished memory is seeing my mother watching the [original cast] while holding my nephew, who was three or four at the time, on her lap. The play was born from a powerful family crisis. I felt like I had to convey how wonderful my sister was to my nephew, who would have no memory of her.”
The story takes place in Truvy’s beauty salon in the fictional Chinquapin, Louisiana, where all the ladies who are “anybody” come to have their hair done. Helped by her eager new assistant, Annelle (who is not sure whether or not she is still married), the outspoken, wise-cracking Truvy dispenses shampoos and free advice to the town’s rich curmudgeon, Ouiser, (“I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a bad mood for forty years”); an eccentric millionaire, Miss Clairee, who has a raging sweet tooth; and the local social leader, M’Lynn, whose daughter, Shelby (the prettiest girl in town), is about to marry a “good ole boy.” Filled with hilarious repartee and not a few acerbic but humorously revealing verbal collisions, the play moves toward tragedy when, in the second act, the spunky Shelby (who is a diabetic) risks pregnancy and forfeits her life. The sudden realization of their mortality affects the others, but also draws on the underlying strength—and love—which give the play, and its characters, the special quality to make them truly touching, funny and marvelously amiable company in good times and bad. (Dramatist Play Service)
Director Chris Everett assembled a well-matched, veteran community theater cast which includes Cinday Baird (Truvy), Kate Jerzak (Annelle), Mary McKee (Clairee), Mary Spacht (Shelby), Pat Culinane (M’Lynn) and Gail Wagner (Ouiser). The play is such an ensemble piece that no one actor stands above another. The camaraderie between the women on stage is clear (and I’m sure that affection overflows off-stage as well). Remaining tightly seated while riding the emotional rollercoaster demanded by the script is challenging for both actor and audience member. The six actors for this production may want to consider elevating the risk factor of the ride so as not to lessen the impact. I attended the performance last Saturday night and was troubled by the slow pacing. My companion, who hasn’t seen either the play or the movie, wasn’t emotionally engaged. (Disclosure: My companion was a male and passed the work off as a chick-flick.)
Actors always have at least one takeaway from shows, and my bet is that Baird now has a fall back as a hair stylist. I was quite impressed with the on-stage “up-do” she completed on Spacht – baby’s breath and all.
Written by Robert Harling
Directed by Chris Everett
January 24 – February 2, 2014
The Everett Theatre
47 West Main Street
Middletown, DE 19709