The tight-knit circle of Deep South women who patronize Truvy’s Beauty Salon, the unofficial social hub of tiny Chinquapin, Louisiana, will gather once again April 23-May 9 for Theatre in the Park’s stirring rendition of Steel Magnolias by award-winning Southern playwright and screenwriter Robert Harling, who was inspired to write the play when his sister Susan died of complications from diabetes. (Harling’s screenplay for Larry McMurtry’s novel The Evening Star tied for the 1997 Lone Star Film & Television Award for Best Screenplay.)

Steel Magnolias made its New York debut Off Off Broadway on March 22, 1987 at the WPA Theatre. It subsequently transferred to the Off-Broadway Lucille Lortel Theatre, where it ran for 1,126 performances and earned an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination.

“I first saw the play in New York at the Lucille Lortel Off-Broadway theater in 1988,” says TIP guest director David Britt. “I had not seen the movie, but was aware that it was coming out soon with a host of ‘Stars’ playing the roles.”

Britt recalls, “I was in New York for the holidays and just heard a friend speak of this very funny and touching play about real Southern women. I saw the play on a Friday night and took a friend see it on the Sunday afternoon.”

In reviewing the original New York production, The New York Daily News wrote, “Harling has given his women sharp, funny dialogue…. The play builds to a conclusion that is deeply moving.” Drama-Logue called the play “a skillfully crafted, lovingly evoked picture of eccentricity in the small-town South,” and noted: “Robert Harling is a new voice in the theatre and the qualities of Steel Magnolias suggest he may be an important one.” And the New York Post said Harling’s Southern-fried script was “suffused with humor and tinged with tragedy.”

The film version of Steel Magnolias, adapted for the silver screen by Robert Harling and directed by Herbert Ross, premiered in 1989. It starred Sally Field as M’Lynn Eatenton, Dolly Parton as Truvy Jones, Shirley MacLaine as Ouiser Boudreaux, Daryl Hannah as Annelle Dupuy Desoto, Olympia Dukakis as Clairee Belcher, and Julia Roberts as Shelby Eatenton Latcherie. Smyrna, Georgia native Julia Roberts earned a nomination for the 1990 Academy Award® for Best Actress in a Supporting Role; and playwright/screenwriter Robert Harling played the minister at Shelby’s wedding.

Thanks to the movie, the plot of Steel Magnolias is well known. Britt says, “Five women meet at Truvy’s beauty shop each Saturday and share the week’s gossip and events. As the play opens, we find out that one of the women, M’Lynn [Debra Zumbach Grannan], has a daughter named Shelby [Brooke Miller], who is getting married and [Shelby] is coming in to get her hair done for the wedding. We find out that Shelby is a diabetic, and this brings some complications to her life.

“Now that Shelby is going to be married,” Britt adds, “it brings a lot of doubt about her ability to have children. Clairee [Carol Loots] and Ouiser [Cheryl McConnell] are best friends and put in their two cents about weddings, the family, and the town. Truvy [Rita Goss Coby] and her new assistant Annelle [Vanessa K. Zitzmann] provide the hair care and the arena for the story that will follow Shelby after she is married and all that a young bride takes on.”

Actor/director David Britt is a Triangle theater veteran who has played more than 30 roles in various Raleigh, NC theatrical productions. He last appeared on stage at Theatre in the Park in TIP’s presentation of Spinning into Butter, directed by Eric Woodall. He also served as assistant director for the TIP production of Pageant.

Trained at the New Actors Workshop in New York City and Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, Britt will leave TIP in July to enroll in the University of South Carolina’s MFA/Professional Actors Training Program.

David Britt says, “What I love about [Steel Magnolias] is the story that it tells about women. Women, in my opinion, have very little that stands in the way of them making friends. Men often are friends with people they either work with or went to school with. The relationships of women with their friends is often built on common, basic love for one another. Often times, you could look at a group of women and see several different personalities, social backgrounds, careers, looks, and on and on. With men, it often seems that a group of friends are all about the same. I love that about this story. It celebrates the touching love that each of these friends have for one another.”

Britt adds, “I wanted to direct [Steel Magnolias] because I wanted to have a part in letting six women in this area have the chance to tell this story. I wanted to see it done in a way that I think the past few productions I have seen missed the mark on. So many times, this story is told for the pure funny and make-believe life of ‘Southern Women.’ This play is based on a true life experience of Robert Harling. He lost his sister after her health failed, due to childbirth. I wanted to work with six real women to tell this funny, yet touching and real story.”

Staging this perennially popular tearjerker presents some formidable creative challenges for director David Brit and the show’s designers: TIP’s critically acclaimed husband-and-wife team of set, lighting, and sound designer Stephen J. Larson and costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson.

“The major challenge that I found,” David Brit says, “was finding six actresses that could portray these characters in a real and sincere way. I did not want over-the-top acting, or phony Southern accents. I was very fortunate in having 48 women audition, and the ones who were cast came as close to what I believe the real people of this play are.”

He adds, “I hope that people see this play and know, first of all, we are not doing an imitation of the movie. We have done justice to the written script and stayed away from the stereotypes of Southern Women. This play is very touching and sad; however, the laughs are there. I hope that we can all laugh together. ‘Laughter through Tears!'”

Theatre in the Park presents Steel Magnolias Thursday-Friday, April 29-30 and May 6-7, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 1 and 8, at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 2 and 9, at 3 p.m. on the TIP main stage, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $12-$18. 919/831-6058. Note: On May 1st, there will be a special $35-a-ticket May Day Garden Tea Party, presented as TIP’s first annual spring fundraiser. Theatre in the Park: Internet Movie Database (1989 Film):