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The flowers of friendship
'Steel Magnolias' follows six women through triumph and tragedy
‘Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion': The cast of 'Steel Magnolias,' opening at S.P.A.C.E. Oct. 1. (Photo: City of Savannah)

Louisiana playwright Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias as a coping mechanism after his sister, Susan, died from complications related to diabetes. It’s the story of six close–knit Southern women jumping through life’s hoops – the good and the bad – and two of them, mother and daughter M’Lynn and Shelby, are based on members of Harling’s own family.

Discovering this kernel of information was an “aha” moment for Ellie Pyle, who’s directing the City of Savannah production of Steel Magnolias at the S.P.A.C.E. theater on Henry Street.

Pyle, the city’s performing arts director, is known for doing deep research into each new show she tackles. And Steel Magnolias, despite the elements of tragedy, is first and foremost a comedy.

“I think that it’s important to know as much as you can about the play,” Pyle explains. “Knowing that it’s autobiographical puts an interesting spin on some of it.

“There’s a note at the beginning of the script that says ‘None of these women are intended to be played as caricatures.’ These are intended to be real characters, real people. And again, the knowledge that it’s autobiographical gives some weight to that.”

The women – a cross–section of gossip mongers, quiet observers, wiseacres and gentle spirits – gather at Truvy’s beauty parlor and talk. And talk. And talk some more.

“It would be very easy to go over the top into parody and satire,” explains Pyle. “In fact, that’s something that we discussed in rehearsal. One of the actresses asked me: ‘When I’m doing this part, am I making fun of it?’ And I said no, the character genuinely believes everything that she’s saying. And that’s what makes it funny, and powerful, is that they are very real characters. And very much like people that we all know.”

St. Joseph’s Candler will have information at each performance about the “myths and misconceptions” of diabetes.

“We were looking for a play that would have some sort of relevance to an issue that impacts out community,” says Pyle. “And one of the characters in the play is diabetic. Since diabetes is an issue that’s had so much focus in our community recently, we figure that doing this play – and doing it as a diabetes awareness project – would be a great opportunity.”

The 1989 film version, which took in $84 million at the box office, starred Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Dolly Parton and Olympia Dukakis.

The Pyle–directed play features Savannah performers Kelley Gray, Danielle Frazier, Vickie Blackshear, Carmel Cowart, Lynne Jones and Gail Byrd.

It all takes place in Truvy’s shop. There’s not a man in sight, although the film version added several male characters.

Which doesn’t necessarily make Steel Magnolias a play just for women audiences.

“One of the characters is talking about her husband,” Pyle laughs. “She says ‘He’d never set foot in a beauty shop. That’s women’s territory. He probably thinks we run around naked or something.’

“I think that it’s an interesting opportunity for men to see what goes on when they’re not around. Even though it was written by a man, he obviously had observed very closely his mother and her friendships, and the way these women interacted, and what they meant to each other.”

Historically, of course, much of the most successful theater has walked the thin line between comedy and tragedy.

“One of the funniest moments in the whole play follows immediately on the heels of the most emotionally devastating moment,” Pyle says. “One of the characters says ‘Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.’ I think that’s very much the heart of the play, that it is a comedy, a very real story, and it’s about the comedy that gets us through the tragedy.

“There’s a lot of depth in this play. And I’m fortunate that I’ve got such an exceptionally talented cast. They’ve dived in and really made the most of everything they have to work with.”

Steel Magnolias

Where: S.P.A.C.E., 9 W. Henry St.

When: At 8 p.m. Oct. 1, 2, 8, 9; at 3 p.m. Oct. 3 and 10

Tickets: $10 general admission, $7 seniors and students with I.D.

Contact: (912) 651–6783