PLEASE NOTE THAT THE WEEKEND RUN OF ‘STEEL MAGNOLIAS’ HAS BEEN CANCELED DUE TO HURRICANE IRENE. HOWEVER, THEY ARE ADDING SHOWS FROM SEPT. 9 – 11 TO MAKE UP FOR THE MISSED PERFORMANCES.
City Stage • 21 N. Front St.
8/25-28 and 9/2-4, 8 p.m. • $12-$15
Readers of encore most likely remember last month’s coverage of “Steel Magnolias,” a Southern classic tale of familial and friendship bonds tried in the face of death. Primarily an all-female cast, Steve Vernon of BUMP Productions wanted to add a twist to the show: have it performed in drag. It wasn’t something unheard of to the director; after all, he had seen success by doing such 10 years earlier in Wilmington and Chicago. Buzz generated through every media outlet upon hearing of the reprisal; print, TV, radio, everyone was covering it. Yet, a day before curtain call, the cast and crew were served a cease and desist letter, preventing them from moving forward.
“I can only say that the clause that prevented us from doing the all-male production was not specific to the play itself but to all plays handled by the publishing house,” Vernon says. “All actions were dropped once the show was cancelled.”
Though Vernon knew the production wouldn’t fly in drag, it didn’t stop him from perpetuating the show’s emotional appeal, even if it meant sticking to a tried-and-true telling of the story. So, he reapplied for the rights.
“[They] were granted only after the playwright was assured that the casting would be traditional,” Vernon explains.
Thanks to his long list of theatre connections, he comprised a cast nothing short of exceptional: Melissa Stanley as Truvy, Emily Young as Clairee, Deb Bowen as Ouiser, Amanda Young as Annelle, Anna Gamel as Shelby and Katherine Vernon as M’Lynn (whose husband, Alex Wharff, was scheduled to play Shelby in the drag version).
Though the obvious dichotomy of men tapping into women—especially these emotional characters was lost, the foundation of the show’s message was not. The difference in the direction of the actors only came with one minute change of pace.
“The women did not need the rehearsal time to become ‘women,’” Vernon states, “whereas the guys involved before spent a lot of time trying to perfect female qualities (which they had done wonderfully).” Because rehearsal time was cut, it provided the ladies with a challenge to not only move outside the norm of the classic Southern roles but do so with fresh, expedient command.
“They have been remarkably adept at working with the material,” Vernon says, explaining the organic evolution that has molded their characters. “It’s an ensemble piece, so the interactions have to be natural, and there has to be a willingness to think of the relationships these women have, not just the characters they portray.”
As for the all-male cast who once filled their shoes, literally, support from them has come in droves. In fact, the whole experience has affected Vernon in true “Steel Magnolias” fashion. “It has been very humbling to witness all of these artists step up for each other,” he states. That’s the essence which weaves the play’s plot—friends and family backing each other even during the most difficult of circumstances.
Taking place primarily in a beauty parlor in and around Louisiana, M’Lynn raises a beautiful daughter, Shelby, diseased by a life-threatening form of diabetes. Wanting to live a normal life as much as possible, including having a family, the spirited Shelby infuses a whirlwind of kindness, fortitude and love into every life she touches. The connections made because of her become the forefront of the plot’s progression.
“To me, this script speaks volumes about our ability as human beings to connect and form bonds that can withstand tragic circumstances,” Vernon says. “It also speaks to the strength of women (regardless of the gender of the actor) and how much of that strength men rely on, even if they are oblivious to it.”
One of the most tear-jerking scenes in the original 1988 movie centers around such a notion. “I find it amusin’ … men are supposed to be made outta steel or somethin’,” M’Lynn describes of witnessing her daughter’s release from life support while her husband, unable to bear it, leaves the room. “Oh, God! I realize as a woman how lucky I am: I was there when that wonderful creature drifted into my life, and I was there when she drifted out.”
The fervor and passion doesn’t sink the script, which is guided by waves of melancholy and hilarity. The eccentric and comedic roles add to its levity. Such foundations of who these people are and how they act gave Vernon impetus to challenge his cast—to impart on the actors to break free from what they “‘know’ about the story and to discover how their versions fit into things, to make these well-known characters their own creations (a challenge that they have more than met).”
In the end, the outcome will fulfill the audience of Robert Harling’s original story, which he wrote after experiencing his sister’s death and its aftermath among family and friends. The writer scribed the show a tribute to women. In all, it lifts a foundation of truth and has evolved into so much more.
“The cast is multi-generational,” Vernon explains, “and there is more of a sense of community and family. It’s rare to see the virtues of six people from different ages, economic backgrounds and family structures so prominently displayed. There is an opportunity to explore how different people respond emotionally to the same situations, and a sort of celebration of being able to display emotions among a group of friends without fear of alienating them.”
With costumes by Selina Harvey, set and lights by Aaron Willings, hair and makeup by Lance Howell and Ashley Grantham, stage managing by Don Lashley and sound by Don Sorensen, the show finally opens on August 25th, at 8 p.m., at City Stage, downtown Wilmington. Tickets are $12 for general public and $15 for table seating.