“The funniest movie that will ever make you cry.” That’s how Steel Magnolias was billed when it hit theaters in 1988. Two years before that, playwright Robert Harling penned the play in only ten days, at once an homage to his sister and to the strong women he knew growing up in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
For 30 years now, Steel Magnolias has defined Southern womanhood as it flashed across American movie and television screens. This spring, to honor the movie’s thirtieth anniversary, Hendersonville Community Theatre is bringing the story home.
It would be a mistake to go thinking this is a dramatization of the iconic movie. It’s not, though the characters and storyline will be intensely familiar. Rather, this is a production of the original play, written in honor of the playwright’s sister — his own Shelby. This version takes place in four acts, all within the walls of the beauty shop where these six women share their lives with one another. There are no men, no supporting cast.
Director Jonathan Forrester notes that the viewers pretty much all know how it goes. The plot is no mystery. Spoiler alert: Shelby will die. M’Lynn will be devastated, and a circle of friends rises up to buoy her.
Instead, we watch to see these women, whom we recognize so well — versions of the women who populate our own lives — relate to and support one another. “There comes a time when everyone just needs some relief and to feel okay with everything,” Forrester says. “Steel Magnolias … it’s got its dark moments, but it’s also warm and fuzzy.”
And funny. Some of the show’s one liners have become well embedded in popular culture: “If you can’t say something nice about someone, come sit by me.” … “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”
Because the play was a late addition to the season, Forrester got the opportunity to shape it more deeply than most, handpicking many of the actors for its six-performance run at the theater. In this, he echoes the remarkable selection of the blockbuster movie’s original cast. Interviewed in Garden and Gun magazine, playwright Harling noted that Meg Ryan was initially offered the starring role of Shelby, but turned it down because she was about to film When Harry Met Sally. The article also revealed that Jackie Onassis’ sister Lee Radziwill, then-girlfriend of the movie’s director Herbert Ross, was among those who pushed for Julia Roberts as Shelby — the part that launched Roberts’ stellar career.
“All the actors [in the local play] are seasoned,” says Forrester.
“I grew up with the movie,” confirms Jennifer Memelo, who plays Shelby’s mother M’Lynn. She notes the depth of feeling that must be poured into these characters. When Forrester approached her, her own mother had just died. “I understand the devastation and feelings of loss and what that’s like. I think that’s crucial to M’Lynn’s character that you do know what that’s like.” It’s a piece that requires the whole cast by turns to dig deep and to be spot-on with the humor.
Carrie Kimbrell Kimzey, who plays Shelby, feels a similar connection to the story. “Either your grandmother, mother, or aunt is going introduce it to you,” she says. She feels like she’s always known about the movie, but has come to it as an actor with a fresh take, gleaning inspiration from those who have played Shelby before her, but, just as importantly, pushing herself to discover the character anew. “We’re all trying to bring in the characters [the audience] will recognize, but add our own flavor or twist to them,” she says.
Both actors talk about measuring their own lives by the lives of the characters in Steel Magnolias — warmhearted Truvy, hilariously grumpy Ouiser, elegant Clairee with the acid wit. At least two generations of Southern women have now seen the story on stage or screen.
Memelo remembers clearly identifying with the scrappy-but-frail Shelby and with shy outsider Annelle when she was these characters’ ages, as she does now with matriarch M’Lynn. Kimzey notes that it’s been particularly exciting to experience the play again through Shelby’s eyes, at Shelby’s age. And Forrester says it’s obvious how important Steel Magnolias has been to all his actors, “dream roles” for them throughout their careers, from teenager to elderly widow.
For Memelo, the story endures “because it resonates with so many people. You really can feel what these characters are going through. They really care for and love one another.” Kimzey agrees that central to the play is the importance of chosen family. That’s a huge thing here in the South, she says. “Everybody’s family. You can create a support system outside of your blood relatives … and that’s what the women in the story have: family, support, and love.”
Or, as Forrester puts it, “Seeing a show like this makes people say, ‘I need to call my mom’ or ‘I need to call my sister.’”
Hendersonville Community Theatre (229 South Washington St.) presents The 30th Anniversary Celebration of Steel Magnolias Friday, March 8 through Sunday, March 17. Friday and Saturday shows are at 7:30 pm, Sunday matinees at 2pm. Tickets are $25/adults, $20/students (ages 18+), and $15/youth. For tickets and more information, call 828-692-1082 or see hendersonvilletheatre.org.