Smell that sweet fragrance? It’s the intoxicating Steel Magnolias, the latest Triad Stage production.

It hardly seems possible that Magnolias is now a “period” piece, but it has, after all, been some 24 years since the play, almost instantly made into a movie starring Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, et al., flowed from the pen of Nachitoches, La., native Robert Harling. 

John Feltch, a UNC-CH alum, directs this now-classic play about the lives of six Southern women as they merge, clash and part ways. Characters, though thoroughly different, coalesce like flavors in a warm banana pudding.

This is Felch’s first directorial Triad Stage appearance since 2008, when he directed Bell, Book and Candle, but he is no stranger to the area. He has directed productions at Playmakers Repertory Theatre, among many others, and recently played Salieri in Amadeus at the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville.

Feltch brings together a bouquet of actors: Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as Truvy, Elizabeth May as Annelle, Elizabeth Lewis Corley as Clairee, crowd-pleaser Cinny Strickland as the hilarious Ouiser, and Triad Stage vet Beth Ritson as the hand-wringing mother M’Lynn. Catherine Charlebois, just off a national tour of Wicked, plays Shelby, M’Lynn’s diabetic daughter, in her Triad Stage debut.

We’re treated to a delightful carport-turned-salon set by Fred Kinney, so beautifully coordinated from tiles to toner you could be entertained by merely gazing at its colors.   

The ’80s couture might now seem just bad taste, as costume designer Kelsey Hunt explains in the playbill,  but as the myriad of shades, shapes and all manner of adornment (à la Madonna) seems diametrically opposed, so, too, are the personalities.  

This is the joy and the challenge of mounting this play: highlighting and blending differences. Getting that balance between tragic and comic, strength and vulnerability, is tricky, and the stage play might suffer when compared to the movie that we’ve all seen so many times. But it also makes us appreciate the difficulty in melding six professionals, all talents in their own right.If they try too hard, it becomes too vanilla; not enough, and it’s just a banal play starring six women. 

While the plot and action revolve around the fragile young Shelby, it is Truvy, the owner of the in-home hair salon where the women congregate, who is the real center of this small-town Louisiana universe.

Rouse gives us a sweet and touching Truvy, softly Southern enough for all the other personalities to bounce off. Her Truvy-isms (“There’s no such thing as a natural beauty”) entertain and enlighten the culture of the Southern belle, young or old. In addition, Rouse’s resemblance to Lifetime Channel’s reality show pageant maven on Glamour Belles doesn’t hurt.

Somehow, Ritson as M’Lynn seems even more vulnerable than her daughter, but any mother can understand how this might be the case. All phases of womanhood are represented here, and theatre-goers will no doubt pick a favorite, from the almost-kooky May (TS debut) as Annelle, to the imposing and properly turned-out Corley as the group’s elder stateswoman.

Things definitely get kicked up a notch when Strickland enters, and her energy enlivens what could otherwise be a relatively somber production.

But Steel Magnolias is not all about the laughs. It reminds us that though reality is cruel, muddle through we must, and a sweet serving of warm banana pudding every now and then never hurts.

The show continues through May 8. For details, see the sidebar.