Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias,” a perennial favorite of theater companies, will be presented the next two weekends by Kernersville Little Theatre.
Starting off as a short story for a family member, “Steel Magnolias” tapped personal stories of women Harling knew well from his Southern upbringing. He adapted the short story into a full-length play, which ran in New York from 1987 to 1990.
He also wrote the screenplay for the 1989 movie that starred Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts.
In the Kernersville production, the six women of Harling’s fact-based story are played by April J’Callahan Marshall as M’Lynn Eatenton, Cassandra Nida as Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie, Elyse Rodriguez as Ouiser Boudreaux, Emily Ultan as Clairee Belcher, Janea Platt as Truvy Jones and Kamryn Lee as Annelle Dupuy-Desoto.
Pamela Barrans, director of Drama Kids of the Triad, has acted with and directed for area productions as well.
“This is my first directing adventure with Kernersville Little Theatre,” she said, “and I am thrilled. This amazing cast have truly become like family over these short few weeks, and I have enjoyed every second of it.”
Barrans is also directing this particular play for the first time, though she has wanted to work with the script for some time.
“Let me say I have a fantastic cast. We’ve had a lot of discussion about each of the women in this show,” she said. “These characters are women of great depth, strength and capacity. I wanted to be sure they would be portrayed that way. We have looked into the past of each character, and the cast has a great handle on it.”
Though “Steel Magnolias” is chiefly an ensemble play, giving good roles to all six characters, the main dramatic focus is on M’Lynn and her daughter, Shelby. April Marshall, a long-standing volunteer, actor and director with KLT, plays M’Lynn.
Marshall’s most recent onstage roles have included Vernadette in “Dixie Swim Club” and Ben Franklin in KLT’s all-female production of the musical “1776.” She also directed the recent “Almost, Maine” and “Eleemosynary.”
“I have actually been in ‘Steel Magnolias’ before, as Ouiser Boudreaux, and I have directed it as well,” Marshall said. “M’Lynn, the mother, is a character I have wanted to play since 1989 when I first read the script, and brought it to KLT for consideration, even before the movie came out. I am beyond delighted to do this with KLT.”
Beyond the task of learning lines, Marshall has prepared to become M’Lynn in other ways.
“Living, and being a mother myself, have been helpful,” she said. “I have lost a lot of those dear to me — thankfully, not a child — and I feel I can really relate to M’Lynn’s greatest desire. You’ll have to see the show to see what that is.”
Research has been part of the process, too. “In addition,” she said, “I have done a lot of research on the real family members whose story this play represents. And there’s been a lot of prayer that I will do this role and that family justice.”
Marshall has found both joys and challenges in the rehearsal process for the show.
“The close camaraderie of the women is a true joy in being in this show. The other actresses are incredible and so much fun to work with, and there is a lot of laughter,” she noted.
On the other hand, “allowing myself to go to dark places as needed to truly represent M’Lynn is very challenging,” Marshall said. “Each night after the final scene, I am completely wiped out.”
Nevertheless, as the playwright himself noted, there is a great deal of humor mixed into the interactions over the three years represented in the story. While there is sadness, there are many quirky and amusing moments among the characters.
“If you want a fun, heartwarming and, yes, a poignant story to see, then ‘Steel Magnolias’ is it,” Marshall said. “You will laugh, you will wonder, and you may even cry, so come join us. It is also a good ‘Southern’ piece that doesn’t make the characters into people to be laughed at, rather to be laughed with.”
“’Steel Magnolias’ is a beautifully-written comedy, filled with hilarious conversations between a group of Southern women who are the best of friends,” Barrans added. “This is a story of love and relationships — women who see each other in good times and bad.”