Thirty-five years ago, in March 1987, the curtain rose for the first time on a newly written play called Steel Magnolias.
The show was set in a Louisiana beauty parlor with an all-female cast that included Johnson City native Constance Shulman along with
actresses Margo Martindale, Blanche Baker, Mary Fogarty, Kate Wilkinson, and Rosemary Prinz.
Robert Harling, the playwright, based the play on real-life events surrounding his sister and mother and some of the women they knew in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where Harling was raised.
The rest, of course, is history.
Celebrating the 35th anniversary of the play, the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre will bring Steel Magnolias to the stage April 7-16.
A central character in the show is Shelby (based on Harling’s sister Susan) who, at the top of show, is celebrating her wedding day. Later in the show, we learn Shelby, who has type 1 diabetes, has become pregnant—something her doctors, and especially her mother M’Lynn, have urged her not to do due to her fragile health condition.
“As an actress, I feel a real connection to Shelby because we are at such similar stages of our life,” said Catherine Squibb about her role. “We have established our careers but also want the fulfillment of outside relationships. It’s definitely a challenge to understand how much a factor handling all of the trials of having a baby and beginning a marriage would be on someone who already struggles so much with her health.
“For Shelby,” Squibb continued, “I think having her baby is a matter of doing what she can to get something that will bring true joy to her life. Shelby is the kind of person who refuses to let others’ opinions and concerns keep from letting her do what is in her heart, and I respect her tremendously for that. It is a challenge to understand how she finds the courage to act, but I admire her reasons for doing what she feels she needs to.”
While the circumstances surrounding Shelby’s pregnancy and the events that follow provide serious tones for the show, there are plenty of moments of pure hilarity.
As Truvy, one of the show’s characters, says in one of the final moments of the show, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”
Driving much of that laughter is the iconic character Ouiser, the town curmudgeon who claims she isn’t crazy but rather “has been in a bad mood for 40 years.”
“I believe Ouiser’s gruff exterior comes from being disappointed and hurt by the people closest to her, namely her two former husbands
and her three children,” said Kari Tuthill, who plays the character. “Because she has money, she feels like everyone always wants something from her. She uses that gruffness as a shield to keep people at arms’ length to avoid being hurt again. The women at the beauty parlor are the exception. They accept her as she is and know she loves them despite the abrasiveness she displays.
“During my time studying this character, I have come to discover many similarities between her pain and gruff exterior and my own,” Tuthill added. “Throughout my life, I, like Ouiser, have felt the burden of being strong for others even while I was crumbling inside. Ouiser is not only a character I will play, but a person I have been. It will be both easy and challenging to bring such a person to life on stage because she is me and I am her.”
Joy Nagy is returning to the character of M’Lynn after playing her for the first time back in 2006.
“I’m so thankful for the chance to play the role of M’Lynn again, at this age and stage of my life,” Nagy said. “In the 16 years since that first performance, I have gained a better understanding of her courage, her fears, her perseverance, and how she balances the needs of her daughter and family with her own need for control and comfort. Her strong and positive spirit in the face of hardship is truly admirable— especially in this context of a real-life story.”
It’s Diane Taveau’s third rodeo in Steel Magnolias. While living in Illinois, she played M’Lynn as well as Truvy, the role she will play again at JRT.
“I love playing Truvy because she represents so much of what’s good in the world,” Taveau remarked. “She always tries to find joy and silver linings in any situation and is open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. She continues to hope for something better for herself but is grateful for what she has. And she has tremendous faith in God, but she doesn’t force it on others.
“Truvy doesn’t criticize herself in front of others, but embraces every part of herself,” Taveau noted. “She basically makes me want to be a better person— and who wouldn’t love to play a character like that?”
Rounding out the JRT cast are Kate Hollenbeck and Krista Wharton. The show is directed by Joe Smith, with Bennett Little as assistant director.
The company includes Kelly Cruise, Becky Edmisten, Karen Elb, Hana Goff, Sabra Hayden, Audrey Holley, Chris Jones, Nathan Marooney, Melissa Nipper, and Katy Rosolowski.
The production is sponsored by Saladworks, Lynda & Lew Wexler, and Sonia King.
Tickets are $17 general admission, $15 for students and seniors. There is also a special group rate for parties of 15 or more. To purchase tickets, call the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center at (423) 753- 1010 or go online to jonesboroughtheatre.com.
The theatre is located at 125 W. Main St., Jonesborough.