After all the exhausting glitz of the holiday season, Crown Uptown’s Matthew Rumsey figures that audiences are ready for a change of pace to ease into the new year.
That’s why he selected “Steel Magnolias,” Robert Harling’s 1987 comedy-drama about the bonding among a group of quirky Southern women, as the next offering for the theater. The show — the only non-musical of the season — opens Friday night.
“We wanted to do something smaller and more intimate to take a break after all the flashy holiday fare. ‘Steel Magnolias’ seemed a perfect choice because it’s full of laughs but with heart-touching moments,” said Rumsey, who will direct the show.
The main difference between the play and the 1989 movie, Rumsey said, is that the play concentrates on the six women in one setting: a small-town Louisiana beauty shop where they gather to gossip and commiserate. The men in their lives are talked about but are never seen, whereas the movie brought some of the men in as characters.
M’Lynn (played by Patti Cooper) is a strong-willed wife, mother and pillar of her community who believes a woman’s goal is to sacrifice for her family. Shelby (Ashley Lauren) is her equally strong-willed newlywed daughter determined to have a baby despite danger to her health.
Among their circle are tart-tongued, no-nonsense widow Oiser (Jean Ann Cusick); fluttery, fussy, aging Southern belle Clairee (Stephanie Dennis) and naive, awkward town newcomer Annelle (Addie Barnhart), a caterpillar just dying to become a butterfly.
Playing host to them all every week in her home-based beauty shop is wisecracking good old gal Truvy (Karen Robu), a romantic who constantly complains about her husband but wouldn’t know what to do without him — and would never want to try.
“Truvy is the peacemaker of the group. Even though she complains a lot, she is a happy, caring person who wants to do right by everybody. She keeps everybody going,” said Robu, best known for musicals like “Gypsy” and “Les Miserables” for Music Theatre of Wichita. Robu said this rare non-singing role because it allows her a chance to flex her pure acting skills.
“She was played by Dolly Parton in the movie, so she can be a bit flamboyant. She is a little over the top. I like that because I like to make people laugh. I can identify with her personally on a lot of levels — except I never complain about my husband,” Robu said with a laugh.
As M’Lynn, Cooper makes a comeback to performing after a career as teacher (Wichita Collegiate), choreographer (Kansas Dance Academy, Music Theatre for Young People), director and mother of four (now ages 18 to 26).
“Because so much of my work was with musical theater, I would consider myself a singer first. But as a performer, it’s important to use all of your skills. There’s a lot to be said for straight plays. I’m having such fun with ‘Steel Magnolias,’ that I don’t miss the music,” said Cooper, who plays the motherly role taken by Field in the movie.
“M’Lynn — short for Mary Lynn — is a very strong, independent woman who raised her daughter, Shelby, to be strong and independent, too, which is causing problems because they are both so much alike. She doesn’t think she’s a control freak because she does it out of love,” Cooper said.
As Shelby, Wichita State University music theater major Lauren is looking forward to using “just my words and emotions rather than bursting into song” to create her character.
“Shelby is very confident, strong and vivacious. She thinks about how she wants her life to be, and she is determined not to let anything get in the way — in this case, her diabetes,” Lauren said.
“She has problems, but she carries them well because that’s the way she’s been raised. She’s a Southern belle who knows what she wants. As the title indicates, Southern women may seem delicate like magnolias but they are strong like steel.”