Anybody who’s anybody in Chinquapin, Louisiana goes to Truvy’s beauty parlour to get her hair done. On the day we first join that lively bunch, Shelby’s getting married and there are preparations to be made. We’ll follow their lives – focussing on what happens with Shelby – for the next three years, all without leaving the beauty salon that’s central to the story of Steel Magnolias, the Elmira Theatre Company production that opens next week.
Getting things rolling, we meet Truvy (played by Chris Grose) and her new assistant Annelle (Danielle Ball), who isn’t sure if she’s married or not, but won’t let that get in the way of “doing good hair.” Their clients are M’Lynn (Trish Starodub), a social worker who will do anything for her soon-to-be married daughter Shelby (Tracy Leighton); Clairee (Pam Webb), an eccentric millionaire; and Ouiser (Rita Huschka), a curmudgeon who says she’s just “been in a bad mood for 40 years.”
The action centers around Truvy’s salon and the women who regularly gather there. The drama begins on the morning of Shelby’s wedding to Jackson and covers events over the next three years, including Shelby’s decision to have a child despite having Type 1 diabetes and the complications that result from the decision.
“When I look at this, it’s like we’re going to take people on a rollercoaster ride – you’re on an emotional high one minute, and then on a low the next,” said Cathy Judd, adding the story’s appeal lies in the characters. “It’s always about the relationships. My vision was to show the strength of these women in times that are difficult.”
Written in 1987 by Robert Harling, who was raised in Nachitoches, Louisiana, a town of about 17,000 that bears a strong resemblance to the fictional community of Chinquapin Parish, the story takes on an extra resonance in that it was inspired by his own real-life experiences. Steel Magnolias is based on the tragic events of Harling’s sister, Susan. Like the character Shelby, she died at an early age as a result of complications caused by diabetes following the birth of her only child. The play also honours Harling’s mother who, like the character M’Lynn, donated a kidney to her daughter in a transplant operation that ultimately failed.
Filled with fury at the time, he pumped out his first work in 10 days, hoping to provide his nephew, then two year of age, with a story that he would one day read to know more about his mother. In writing the play, he painted a portrait of the community of women that surrounded his mother and sister at the time.
Although based on a heartbreaking situation, the story features plenty of comedic moments. As Harling has been quoted to say, “my family and my community have always been characterized by a tremendous sense of humour, even in the darkest moments.”
That’s clearly in evidence, Judd notes, pointing to the well-written script.
“It’s a sad story, but it’s got a lot of humour in it,” she said. “This is going to take people on a ride. They’re going to be sad, but they will have fun.”
Walking out of the theatre, audiences will be feeling good about the time spent at Turvy’s.
In recognition of the story’s origins, ETC is partnering with the Canadian Diabetes Association to raise diabetes awareness. An education evening was held for the cast and crew by members of the CDA to provide guidance in the onstage portrayal of a diabetic episode. Representatives from the association will be present at each show with information on diabetes.
The Elmira Theatre Company production of Steel Magnolias runs Apr. 27-29, May 3-6, and May 10-12 at 76 Howard Ave. Show times are 8 p.m., except Sunday (2:30 p.m.). Tickets are $18, available at the Centre in the Square box office in Kitchener by calling 578-1570 or 1-800-265-8977, online at www.centre-square.com.