Since its stage debut in 1987, Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias” has come to epitomize the strength of Southern women as it tells the tale of six female residents of Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana who gather at Truvy’s Beauty Spot to share laughter, life, love and even loss. Just two years after the stage premiere, Hollywood came calling with a film adaptation featuring heavy hitters Sally Field, Shirley MacClaine, Olympia Dukakis as well as younger actresses Daryl Hannah and Julia Roberts and of course everyone’s favorite Southern gal, Dolly Parton. The success of the film prompted a failed CBS sitcom pilot. Shoot, in 2012 Lifetime TV even produced an all-African-American update. Even with all the adaptation, reincarnations and updates, there’s still nothing like seeing the work as it was originally intended, on the stage. Always a favorite with Nashville-area theatre companies and audiences alike, over the years, I’ve literally seen “Steel Magnolias” at least a dozen times. Thanks to it’s heartfelt message and playwright Harling’s insightful and ever-relevant subject matter, it truly never gets old. To that end, beginning Thursday, October 6 and continuing through Sunday, October 16, director Nina Albert, who also plays Ouiser, alongside Laura Williams as Clairee, Ann Gwinn as M’Lynn, Elizabeth Gass as Shelby, Willow Cline as Annelle and Abigail Haggard as Truvy, once again bring the beloved Southern story of “Steel Magnolias” to the stage at the Bibb-White Bluff Civic Center (1054 Old Charlotte Rd, White Bluff, TN 37187), just half and hour outside Nashville.
With just days before “Steel Magnolias” opens, I recently had the opportunity to chat with the cast and director for latest installment of my recurring interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q. Since there’s only six members of the cast, and of of them is also the director, I decided to do something a little different and divide the twenty questions amongst all the cast.
Rapid Fire with the cast of Bibb-White Bluff Civic Center’s “Steel Magnolias”
JONATHAN PINKERTON: I honestly can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen “Steel Magnolias”, and not just the film, which is a classic, but staged productions. So I have to ask…Why “Steel Magnolias”?
NINA ALBERT: Practicality 1) the stage in the Bibb-White Bluff Civic Center is small so we need a play with a unit set and small cast. 2) This is a new theatre venue and we needed a play that is beloved, so that people will make an effort to attend and buy tickets! Our first show last year was “Driving Miss Daisy”, and it was well attended. 3) It’s a beautiful story of friendship and strength that resonates with all women.
JP: In spite of her own self-doubt, M’Lynn seems to frequently be the one who holds the ladies of Steel Magnolias together. Growing up, was there a M’Lynn in your own life?
ANN GWINN: Yes, indeed. My mama was a steel magnolia. She was the strongest, most calm and level-headed woman I have ever known. She supported me and stood by me no matter what.
JP: Laura, How are you most like Clairee?
LAURA WILLIAMS: Everyone tells me I am Clairee in real life. I will turn this question on its head, and tell you–since I am very much like her in loving to dress up, go to plays, be active, be married to a good man–I am NOT like her in loving football.
JP: What’s your favorite aspect of Shelby’s character?
ELIZABETH GASS: I love Shelby’s relationship with her mom, mostly because it reminds me so much of me and my own mom! They love each other completely and still make each other a little crazy, and that gives her character so much depth. Shelby isn’t perfect. She’s a little sarcastic, a little silly, and a little impulsive. But, at her heart, Shelby would do absolutely anything for anyone else, whether that be inviting the sad new girl to her wedding, donating her clothes to the poor, or rekindling an old flame for a lonely neighbor (whether that neighbor wants it or not!).
JP: While all the ladies of “Steel Magnolias” grow and evolve throughout the course of the play, Annelle seems the one who’s outwardly searching to find herself. What’s most challenging about playing Annelle as a woman in search of herself?
WILLOW CLINE: Definitely the most challenge part is that Annelle changes so drastically from scene to scene. Everyone else has a sort of gradual growth, but Annelle goes from a nervous, mousy young lady fresh from the turmoil of her husband’s disappearance to a sassy, snarky hairdresser to a quiet, reserved young woman vested deeply in her religion to the Annelle we see at the end of the show. Going off stage as one piece of her and turning it all around within seconds is definitely a trial.
JP: Truvy is a spitfire from the opening scene. How much fun are you having playing her?
ABIGAIL HAGGARD: I am having a BALL! Going into auditions, I thought of myself as more of an Annelle (who I’ve played before) or Shelby. When I got there, though, something told me to try for Truvy as well. I’m so glad I did!
JP: I always find it interesting when a director also is acting in a show. What challenges has that presented for you as director of “Steel Magnolias”, as well as taking on the role of Ouiser?
NINA ALBERT: One of the challenges was made very clear the other night as I was typing up notes to post for the cast. I was clicking along and suddenly the notes for Act 2 Scene 1 were done, long before the act was. I realized that occurred once I stepped on stage. Fortunately, I have been blessed with having Merredith Brittain as my fantastic stage manger and Chuck Burgess as co-director. As I prepared for my entrance last night I said, Direct me, and passed my note pad to Merredith!
JP: M’Lynn’s daughter, Shelby, refers to her mother’s hairstyle as a “brown football helmet”. Be honest. Did you ever sport a similar hairstyle?
ANN GWINN: No, heck no! The only “football helmet” I will ever wear is in the show!
JP: You play Clairee, the well-to-do widow who’s a big football fan. In the film adaptation, there’s even a bit of a risque scene in the football locker room. Now, since we’re friend and I remember being with you in the audience of shows in which one of the male actors was shirtless, and witnessing your reaction, when you’ve been known to audibly approve of their physique, are you sad you won’t get to play that scene, since the stage version is entirely set in the beauty parlor?
LAURA WILLIAMS: Yes! Haha! Are you talking about the exposing of the male derriere in the locker room? Although I do not remember that scene from the movie, you have me wanting to run out during lunch to purchase it! Everyone who has red blood in her veins appreciates a well-toned male derriere.
JP: So much of Shelby is also about overcoming obstacles and sadness. Do you find yourself tapping into sadness in your real history to play her more authentically?
ELIZABETH GASS: I don’t think there’s any way to play Shelby more authentically than to find that sadness and longing within yourself. Shelby’s life is a very delicate balancing act between managing the very real obstacles she faces- diabetes, problems in her marriage, wanting a child- and her natural tendency to be independent. I really identify with that part of Shelby that longs for approval while still maintaining her independence and asserting control over her own life.
JP: If you could play any other character in “Steel Magnolias”, whether you fit the type or not, who would it be and why?
WILLOW CLINE: Since I first saw the film I’ve always wanted to play Ouiser. I bemoaned when my High School never produced the show, as it would likely be my only chance to try out for her for several decades. She says whatever she wants without really thinking about the consequences, or what anyone thinks about her, and I just envy that sort of carefree lifestyle.
JP: What’s your favorite Truvy moment in the show?
ABIGAIL HAGGARD: The funny: “Sammy’s so confused, he doesn’t know whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt!” The serious: Shelby has passed, and M’Lynn says Shelby would’ve had a good time at the shop that morning. Truvy says, “I’m sure she did.”
JP: Among the cast, a couple of you have worked together in previous shows or have known each other for a while. Have you shared the stage with any of your co-stars?
ANN GWINN: I have shared the stage with two of my cast mates, Abigail Davis Haggard and Laura Williams, both of whom are immensely talented. Abigail and I were in “Into the Woods” at the Renaissance Center in Dickson. She played Rapunzel and I was the ugly stepmother. The three of us were together in “Mame”, again at the Renaissance Center. Abigail played Agnes Gooch (bless her heart having to deal with that pregnant suit!) Laura was the salon owner. Her character’s name escapes me, sorry Laura!) and I played Mother Burnside. What a fun time that was! They are a joy to work with. As Clairee says to Ouiser, I love them both “more than my luggage!”
JP: Within the context of the play, Ouiser and Clairee share the most barbs aimed at each other, but when all is said and done, are great friends. Nina Albert not only plays Ouiser to your Clairee, she’s also directing the show. How is it working with her as an actress and as a director?
LAURA WILLIAMS: Nina and I were friends in high school. We did not graduate together, but were in plays, musicals and concert choir together. It is hysterical being onstage with her. We both love to act, and don’t ever fully know what the other is going to do. I’m always whacking her for being rude. Ouiser speaks her mind!
JP: Alright, Nina, Your turn. How is it working with Laura?
NINA ALBERT: Wonderful! Laura and I have “a past”. We did theatre and choir together in high school, so much like Ouiser and Clairee we have been friends for a long time. Also, we have similar work ethics and we both work hard and desire to do our best! I love the camaraderie we have on stage as our characters and off stage in life.
JP: Why do you think it’s important for Annelle to undergo a metamorphosis in her physical appearance?
WILLOW CLINE: Annelle presents as a lot of different people, in a way, and one of the easier way to show that is a change in wardrobe. Just by stance, the way she occupies herself with her time – she goes from hovering nervously over everything to bopping along and doing her own thing and snarking with the best of them. It’s important to showcase that. It’s not just her dialogue, her way of speaking, that changes. Her entire personality jumps, and her body language is a huge part of that.
JP: Of all the characters in “Steel Magnolias”, Truvy is probably the most challenging to play, thanks to Dolly Parton’s stellar turn in the film. Have you found yourself trying to totally steer clear of Dolly’s Truvy, or do you hope to pepper your performance with a bit of her balance of sass and sweetness?
ABIGAIL HAGGARD: Well being a huge Dolly fan myself, of course I’m thinking of her while playing Truvy. I am not trying to be Dolly, though. I haven’t seen the movie in a few years, which I think is good. I’m not tempted to mock her. I just keep her in mind while bringing my own version of Truvy to life.
JP: How are you most like M’Lynn?
ANN GWINN: I would have to say that the quality I share with M’lynn is my deep and abiding love for my daughter, Katrina. I can truthfully say there is nothing I wouldn’t do for her.
JP: Like all the Steel Magnolia ladies, Clairee has her share of quick quips. What’s your favorite?
LAURA WILLIAMS: My favorite line of hers is during the scene in which Shelby has dangerously low blood sugar. Shelby has a peppermint in her mouth, and says, “No” when asked to drink the orange juice. Clairee says, “Who can blame her? Juice after a peppermint?” At such a serious time, I think that is hilarious!
JP: What do you hope people will take away from this production of “Steel Magnolias”?
ELIZABETH GASS: Life is too short to have any regrets. It seems cliché, but it is so true. Life can be devastating, but it can also be beautiful, and it’s up to us to experience it all. In the immortal words of Shelby, “I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”
And on that note, my time with the ladies of “Steel Magnolias” came to an end. “Steel Magnolias” opens Thursday, October 6 and continues through Sunday, October 16 with Thursday-Saturday shows at 7 p.m. and matinee performances Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. On Saturday October 15, the 2 p.m. matinee will feature an alternate cast of understudies. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door. Senior and Student tickets are $12. There’s also a special Group Rate of $10 for blocks of ten or more. To catch up on the latest from Truvy, Ouiser, Clairee, Annelle, M’Lynn and Shelby, be sure and make an appointment at Truvy’s Beauty Salon and listen in to the ladies of Chinquapin Parish by calling the Bibb-White Bluff Civic Center at 615.797.1154.
If you’ve enjoyed this latest Rapid Fire 20 Q with the cast of Bibb-White Bluff Civic Center’s “Steel Magnolias”, be sure and subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. Be sure and check back tomorrow for my review of opening night. You can also follow us on Facebook,Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler. Interested in coverage of your performing arts events, be sure and drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.