There is a particular lore that surrounds “Steel Magnolias:” Be a part of the story and expect to earn lifelong friends, just like the main characters of the tale.
According to the cast and crew of the Harrell Theatre’s current production, the third of the season’s four shows, this legend is true.
“[‘Steel Magnolias’] is therapeutic when you can relate to the loss described throughout the story,” said Meghan Lewis, who plays M’Lynn Eatenton. “It’s cathartic, especially when surrounded by a group of women I love.”
What draws people - women especially, but also an increasing number of men as their emotional connection becomes more accepted - to the story, makes it a staple of Southern culture?
“It’s the honesty of the characters,” said Jillian Hopper, the show’s Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie. “They’re shown as people, as acerbic human beings going through the grieving process. They aren’t made over or shined up: They’re just how they really are.”
Director Jaclyn Suffel, in her first show with the Collierville Arts Council, believes the show celebrated the honest nature of friendships, how that connection between the women in the story stretches the span of time and endures.
“It’s an incredibly funny, incredibly tragic story,” Suffel said, “and is a true case of art imitates life. I’ve worked with most of the cast before and have watched as they’ve grown closer thanks to the women they play.”
The cast further showed that developing unity as we chatted in the stage left wing seats. Each sat near one another, the first four rows taken by one or two ladies at a time. They freely laughed and joined in the conversation, just as though they sat in Truvy Jones’ beauty shop. There are gentle smiles, inside jokes, and a sense these women knew each other more intimately than simply as cast mates.
Whatever they started as, they can truly call themselves friends.
Some, like Hopper, will take the stage in this show for the first time; others, like Randi Studer (Clairee Belcher) know the ropes quite well. This production makes Studer’s fourth appearance in “Steel Magnolias” over her roughly 52 years on and off the stage.
“I’ve always been drawn to this story,” Studer, a retired teacher said, “especially Clairee and Ouiser [Boudreaux]. This is my third time as Clairee!”
Some of Studer’s past roles include: Mae Peterson in ”Bye Bye Birdie,” Aunt Eller in “Oklahoma!” and the titular character in “Veronica’s Room.”
Nichol Pritchard, the production’s Annelle Dupuy-Desoto, is in her second show with the Collierville Arts Council and cited her role as Lucy in a fourth-grade production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” as her start-off part. A psychologist by day, Pritchard only auditioned for the role of Annelle, the outsider to the close-knit group at the show’s start.
“[Annelle] is the newcomer to the group and sees how these women have their own habits, their own language,” she said. “Her story in the overall show is how she becomes a member of this lifelong clique.”
Pritchard also played Schwarzy in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and Violet in the play of the same name for the Germantown Community Theatre.
Meghan Lewis, M’Lynn, is a newcomer to the Collierville Arts Council, but her involvement in theater started in elementary school and continued through college. She holds degrees in theater and considers herself a storyteller all day long through her position as a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Hospital.
“I was draw to M’Lynn thanks to Sally Fields’ portrayal in the feature film and by the character’s journey over the course to the story,” Lewis said. “I could relate to her in a way that made her feel like a part of myself.”
Lewis played “Ivy” in “August: Osage County,” the title character of “Hedda Gabler” in the 2012 Theatre Memphis production; and as part of a three-person production of “The Complete Words of Shakespeare (Abridged).”
Renee Brame is Truvy Jones, owner of the main setting of the beauty shop in her second show for the Collierville Arts Center and quite a departure from most of her recent roles.
“My last few shows have cast me in villainous or disturbed characters,” Brame said, “so I don’t mind a chance to bring beauty to people for a change!”
A media buyer for Ashley Home Furniture in the daytime, Brame broke into theater during her junior high school days. She alternates her time on stage and behind the scenes, sometimes as an actress (the Witch in “Into the Woods”) or as an assistant director (“The Wizard of Oz”).
The show’s Shelby, Jillian Hopper, is in both her second year of acting and her second production in Collierville, her first as Anne in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” She also took part in shows with the Germantown Community Theatre, including “The Little Prince.” She fell in love with the story behind “Steel Magnolias” and believes the truth behind the tragedy is the telling of the beauty of life.
Sally Stover, a 40-year veteran of the Memphis Theater community, takes on the role of Ouiser. According to her cast mates, Stover also joined the crew of an early 1990s production, thanks, in part, to author Robert Harling.
“[Harling] was adamant about one this with this story: The cast remained all female,” Suffel said. “The director of that show tried to cast a female impersonator in the role of Ouiser and Harling shut the show down! That’s how Sally became Ouiser!”
“Steel Magnolias” will run Feb. 15-17 and Feb. 21-24. Showtimes are 7 p.m. (Feb 15, 16, 21-23) and 2:30 p.m. (Feb. 17 and 24). Tickets cost $20 for adults and $15 for military personnel, seniors (60 and older), and students (21 and under). Thursday, Feb. 21, is a special “pay what you can” night.
“Our goal here is to help people gain exposure to the theater,” said producer Terry Dean, “and sometimes, ticket costs can be the biggest hurdle to that. This night, people pay out what they can - a dollar, 10 dollars, whatever - and get general admission to the show.
“We gain an audience, they see the production. Everyone wins!”