Shelby (Leah Anglin), left, breaks the news to her concerned mother M’Lynn (Kelly Mullins) that she is pregnant despite doctors’ warnings that having a child would be a serious health risk in a rehearsal for “Steel Magnolias,” which opens Friday at Theatre Albany. (Jim Hendricks)
ALBANY — There may not be a place that better represents the struggle between humor and tragedy, or life and death, than a Southern beauty parlor.
That’s the place where tales of the tapestry of life are woven while the participants in the laughter, tears, sharing of news and flat-out gossip create powerful bonds. It’s been said that a true Southern belle, given the choice, would be much more likely to change her husband than her hairdresser.
And few plays capture that sense than “Steel Magnolias,” a play that was born in tragedy.
The basic story is well known. A mother and her friends from the local salon have to deal with the death of her daughter, an end that comes despite the mother’s personal sacrifice to preserve her daughter’s life. The best known version, of course, is the movie that starred a young Julia Roberts as the ill-fated Shelby and Sally Field as her mother.
• WHAT: A play about the lives of six Southern women by Robert Harling.
• WHO: Theatre Albany
• WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Aug. 22-24; 2:30 p.m. Sunday and Aug. 25
• WHERE: Theatre Albany, 514 Pine Ave.
• CAST: Kim Hobbs, Janna Henderson, Joy Johnson, Leah Anglin, Kelly Mullins and Kathleen Stroup
• DIRECTOR: Mark Costello
• PRODUCTION STAFF: Mary Lou Beasley, stage manager; Jessica Robison, properties; Kimberly Lawson, light operator; T.A. Gatling, sound operator; Courtney Lawson, dresser; Stephen Felmet, set construction; Costello and Felmet, lighting design
• TICKETS: $20, general admission; $15, seniors; $10, students and active military
•BOX OFFICE: (229) 439-7141
“Robert Harling wrote it after the death of his sister,” Theatre Albany Artistic Director Mark Costello said in an interview last week. “She was the one he based Shelby on. It was sort of a therapy that he wrote the play.”
The story of six women and their struggles with life comes to the stage at Theatre Albany when the curtain goes up at 8 p.m. Friday. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Aug. 22-24 and 2:30 p.m. Aug. 25.
Leah Anglin, a 20-year-old music major at Darton State College, is making her debut with Theatre Albany as Shelby, the role around which the cast revolves. Shelby’s mother, M’Lynn, is being played by Kelly Mullins, a four-year veteran of the Albany stage.
Theatre Albany’s 2013-14 season:
• Funny Money
Oct. 18-20 and 24-27
Ray Cooney’s play focuses on mild-mannered Henry, whose life gets complicated after he picks up the wrong briefcase — one full of cash.
Dec. 5-6, 8 and 12-15
Dan Coggins’ holiday play has nuns producing “The Nunsense Christmas Musical” for cable-access television.
• Stories About the Old Days
Jan. 31, Feb. 1-2 and 6-9
Bill Harris’ play has a former blues singer who lives in a decaying Detroit church finding a way to move from animosity to friendship with his checkers opponent.
• Mama Won’t Fly
March 21-23 and 27-30
The comedy by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten involves an effort to get a feisty mother across country for a wedding in California.
May 16-18 and 22-25
The Charles Dickens’ classic comes to musical life in an play by Lionel Bart that features the favorites “Consider Yourself,” :As Long as He Needs Me” and “Who Will Buy.”
Truvy, the salon owner, is played by Kim Hobbs, who is making her second appearance with the theater after appearing in last season’s “The Little Town of Christmas.” Janna Henderson, who is a hairstylist and a veteran both on the stage as an actor and off it as part of the make-up and hair crew, portrays newcomer Annelle. Joy Johnson (Clairee) and Kathleen Stroup (Ouiser) have extensive Theatre Albany performance resumes.
“It’s a good group of gals,” Costello said, adding that the six cast members have developed some strong camaraderie as rehearsals have progressed.
Much like the way the characters take in Annelle, the experienced thespians have brought the newer actors under their wings.
“They helped the others along and incorporated them in the whole process,” Costello said.” We’ve had a couple of social evenings, so that they could just relax, get to know each other and play off of each other. It really helps the process of building the characters.”
He said he’s happy with the chemistry that’s developed.
“They kid, they laugh, tell jokes,” he said. “And, of course, I’m the only male, so it’s interesting. They don’t hold anything back, I can tell you that.”
One aspect of the play that differs greatly from the film versions is the absence of male characters.
“It never has (had male characters in the play),” Costello said.” The movie is what opened it up and that’s a tendency. A lot of plays are just one set, and so when you do a movie, people don’t want to sit there and just watch one set. They need to see visuals.
“Of course in the play they do talk about the husbands and fathers … talk about Truvy’s husband and so forth. So these characters are brought in in the movies. A play can concentrate on the characters themselves. Theater tends to be a more verbal medium than film, which is more visual.”
The play is set in Truvy’s salon, which she runs out of her converted garage. “She says in there, ‘The most romantic thing my husband did was turn the carport into a hair salon so I could support him,”’ Costello said. “And all these ladies are real close. They all live right there in the immediate neighborhood of the hair salon.”
The play opens with Shelby’s wedding day and the effect it has on the regulars, who see their number expand unexpectedly.
“Truvy’s just hired a brand-new girl, who’s Annelle. She’s new to town and a little skittish,” Costello said. “They come to find out her husband’s run off with everything — the money, the clothes, the car and she’s just stranded in this town.
“And, of course, we learn a lot about Shelby. We find out she’s diabetic. And so it revolves around that. The next thing’s she’s pregnant, which the mother, it just shakes her because the doctors have cautioned Shelby about even having children, how it could be detrimental to her health.”
The warnings turn out to be valid.
“The of course in the second act, we come to find out she has had the child, but her body has not taken it well and she needs a kidney transplant,” he said. “And the mother is donating one of her kidneys to her. And that sort of takes up the first scene of the second act. And the final scene of the play is after her death and how the bond of the women helps them, especially M’Lynn, get through this tragic event in her life.”
M’Lynn’s husband and sons are not taking Shelby’s death well, adding to the pressure against which M’Lynn is already struggling.
“They’re all in there (the salon) and she just comes and she says, ‘I just needed to come here,’” Costello said. “She’s trying to hold them together, but she needed somebody. She needed somebody to hold her up and to support her, and that’s why she goes back to the salon where her steel magnolias are.”