Only a handful of movies exist that can cause me to do the ugly cry. You know the one: a body-heaving, head-shaking, waterfall-pouring-from-the-eyes breakdown that leaves emotional exhaustion in its wake. “Beaches,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Steel Magnolias” top the list.
Before it was a 1989 hit movie, with a cast of heavy-hitting icons—Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, and Julia Roberts—“Steel Magnolias” was a play written by Robert Harling in 1987, based on his own sister’s death. The show takes place in the fictitious small-town of Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana—also modeled on where Harling was reared. Six women share their stories of wedding bliss, health crises, grandbabies, and death—all of life’s triumphs and trials that test humankind and strengthen friendships.
The show will come to Cape Fear Academy this week, thanks to Thalian Association. Local actress and singer Heather Setzler will make her solo directing debut (she directed “The Last Five Years” last year with her husband Jason Aycock). While scheduling and working with set and costume designers has been a learning experience, getting to the heart of characters has been the driving force of the show.
“The cast brought their own styles to day one of rehearsal,” she praises of Debra Gillingham as Clairee, Heather Lindquist-Bull as Annelle, Elizabeth Michaels as M’lynn, Michelle Braxton as Truvy, Courtney Poland Rickert as Shelby, and Chris Miller as the ornery Ouiser. “We all agreed we wanted to respect the content and characters that are so well-known but not try to mimic the performances in the movie. The spirit of the show remains the same, but each woman brings her unique experiences to the stage.”
Unlike the movie, the play is set entirely in Truvy’s hair salon. Ben Fancy has created a carport façade where the business is located in Truvy’s home—complete with vintage salon chairs and wig heads for set dressing. Two recent Cape Fear Academy graduates have helped him construct it and will run the soundboard throughout the six-day run of show.
“Lance Howell is designing hair, so he’ll work his magic to give us plenty of fabulous ‘80s styles,” Setzler tells. “Much of the dialogue is the same. So, rest assured, all those quotable lines—‘My colors are blush and bashful,’ ‘I’m not crazy; I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!’—are still there!”
And the real heart of the show is more than ever apparent: the bond between the six women and their struggles. “They are very real people, with very real senses of humor and an immense strength about some of life’s hardest experiences,” Setzler tells. “They laugh and cry together, fight with each other but the love is always there. That’s how it’s been with women from the beginning of time and how it will remain.”
encore interviewed some of the cast members about their characters to learn more about what they’re bringing to the stage.
encore (e): Who are you playing and how do you prepare to enact a role that has been iconically portrayed?
Heather Lindquist-Bull (HLB): I am Annelle Dupuy-DeSoto, Truvy’s beauty shop assistant. For me, preparation for any role is most about studying the character (their backstory, personality attributes, the reasons behind the choices they make, and their interactions with other characters), not another actor’s interpretation of the character. For this role, I had to strip away my concern for people’s expectations, which could be overwhelming, in order to focus on embracing real women for whom these characters were modeled.
Debra Gillingham (DG): I haven’t seen the movie in many, many years and don’t plan to any time soon. Besides the film and the stage play are totally different. What works so beautifully with the stage play is it is just six women in Truvy’s shop. The audience doesn’t see male actors like in the film, and they don’t physically travel to different locations. It is up to us to create the other characters and places.
My clues to portraying such a colorful character is to keep studying the script. The clues are all there in Mr. Harling’s spectacular writing; not just Clairee’s words but those of the other characters. It gives me eyes into how Clairee sees life and how the others see Clairee and her life. It’s all about the relationships between these very different six women and how their relationships with their own families, their jobs, their many interests and hobbies affect them.
Michelle Braxton (MB): I believe Truvy’s ability to connect with her friends and neighbors makes her so lovable. She has an insatiable way of always seeing the bright side of life!
Courtney Poland Rickert (CPR): I started by watching the movie to get an idea of what audiences will be expecting. I by no means want to recreate Julia Roberts’ exact portrayal of Shelby, but it did give me a basis for who Shelby is and how she interacts with the other characters.
From there, I began diving into the script and started exploring Shelby’s multidimensional personality. Throughout the rehearsal process I have played around with levels of sarcasm, heart, humor, and compassion in order to find the right combination for this character. Heather’s approach to directing through allowing us to do what feels natural, while also providing needed structure and guidance, has allowed me to feel both free and supported throughout this process.
encore: What do you love most about your character?
CPR: I love Shelby is charming and sweet, but also fierce and unafraid to speak her mind and stand up for what she believes in. Shelby refuses to be told that she can’t do something.
DG: I love how Clairee is always on a mission. Having been the wife of a mayor, she is used to hectic schedules and being a mover and a shaker. She is very accepting of others, no matter their faults. I also love that she celebrates her marriage to Lloyd, even though she is a woman recently widowed who is trying to find her way in a new world; she finds out that she is a lot stronger than she thought she was … and able to be much more independent than she thought she could be.
HLB: I love Annelle’s fortitude, which is true about all the characters. She keeps her heart open to giving and receiving kindness and love always, regardless of her circumstances. She maintains her sense of wonder and is hopeful and trusting even when she feels “totally alone”. She finds strength within herself, through friendship and faith, to push through heartbreak, fear and uncertainty realizing that she has “something to offer,” in her words.
MB: I adore Truvy’s curiosity and peacemaking skills.
e: How does she connect most with audiences in your opinion?
HLB: Annelle’s humanity, vulnerability, and desire to be a part of something greater than herself are relatable and accessible. She is determined to find her place and purpose which is something that I think anyone can identify with throughout various times in their lives.
CPR: I think she gives the audience someone to root for. It’s no secret that Shelby has gone through some difficult times in her life well before the play starts, and she continues to experience some difficulties throughout the play. However, her positive attitude and love of life is apparent and will melt the audience’s heart.
MB: I believe Truvy’s ability to connect with her friends and neighbors makes her so lovable. She has an insatiable way of always seeing the bright side of life!
DG: Clairee doesn’t mince words; she says what she thinks. But she does so with a dry sense of humor and a big heart.
e: What are you bringing to the role that seems new or fresh?
HLB: In the role of Annelle, I’ve been mindful to find balance between my interpretation and maintaining the integrity of the character. Because this play was inspired by real women and events, it’s important to me that my portrayal be realistic and not a caricature. Though, I do bring my own personal and acting experience into any role, I try most to channel the character’s personality. For my performance as Annelle, I am creating mannerisms that I believe are inherent to her character. However, I am also mindful of the need for them to evolve as her character does.
DG: I’m enjoying the rapid-fire dialogue between these women—it really keeps me on my toes.
CPR: Well, the play starts on Shelby’s wedding day, and it just so happens I got married three months ago, so I feel I am able to accurately portray the feelings of a bride on her wedding day.
Overall, I really identify with Shelby’s personality, as well as her life experiences (apart from the chronic sickness). I am excited to hopefully bring a level of authenticity to the character that will have audience members feeling like they are actually watching Shelby experience the joys and struggles of real life.