Within the vast body of work that comprises contemporary theatre, playwright Robert Harling’s intensely and engagingly rendered work Steel Magnolias on many levels stands as one of the finest plays to emerge from the American stage over the past fifty years; and is certainly a fitting choice for Bay City Players to mark their 100th Anniversary with when it opens a two-week run over the weekends of March 17th – 26th. (As the oldest continuously running community theatrical group in the State of Michigan the Players will mark this significant occasion on March 19th with a birthday cake that will be served at intermission; and have many notable celebratory events planned throughout this special 100th anniversary season).
Based upon the author’s experience with his sister’s death, Steel Magnolias is a deftly crafted comedy–drama about the bond amongst a group of Southern women in northwest Louisiana. Indeed, the title itself suggests that the "female characters are as delicate as magnolias but as tough as steel"; and the magnolia specifically references a magnolia tree they are arguing about at the beginning of the story, which opens with discussion of the character Shelby’s wedding day to her fiancé Jackson in the fictional northwestern Louisiana parish of an in-home beauty parlor where the women regularly gather. Although the main storyline involves Shelby, her mother M'Lynn, and Shelby's medical battles, the underlying group-friendship among six pivotal women is prominent throughout the drama.
With so many layers & nuances embedded within the script of Steel Magnolias, which as noted earlier is equal parts comedy & drama – for director Susan Craves there are numerous themes and dynamics in this production that she is striving to elicit and cultivate for audiences.
“As I interpret the playwright's work I think of the old saying ‘No Man is an Island’, only in this situation it pertains to woman,” reflects Craves. “Not one of these ladies is without heartbreak or struggle and yet each of them are steadfast in their support to each other. I want our audience to connect with the undercurrent of heartbreak and pain that each character lives with, but never gives succumbs to. For me that is the crux of this story.”
“These women are often crying on the inside and laughing on the outside,” she continues. “But even their subtext of sorrow and loneliness and fear are balanced by joy and camaraderie and security.
They are the poster children for that old adage: That what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And seeing beyond the darkness is a challenge that each and every one of the ladies takes very seriously.”
Obviously, what drives the success of such an intricately woven ensemble work is the talent and chemistry of the casting. With 37 women auditioning for Bay City Players’ landmark production over two nights, 3 hours each night, Craves, stage manager Jeanne Cadena and producer Greg Burke manned the audition table, with groups brought from a holding area and asked to read from preselected scenes. “Those who were not involved in the scene being read, waited in another room,” adds Susan. “I prefer that actors not be privy to what others are doing with the scene they are reading. This is my personal preference as a director; and as an actor, I appreciate this choice as well.”
“The final selection of the six chosen to live life as Truvy, Annelle, Clairee, Shelby, M'Lynn and Ouiser came down to the dynamics and chemistry that the women generated,” continues Susan. “We have three seasoned actors; Debra Monroe, Kristie Moe and Debbie Lake in the roles of Clairee, M'Lynn and Ouiser; and two relatively new actors; Sarah Greene and Elise Williams in the roles of Truvy and Annelle. Plus, we have a "never before set foot on stage" newbie, Megan McParlan as Shelby.”
“Their strength lies in their willingness to blend with one another,” notes Susan. “Greg, Jeanne and I knew that this group could and would be a true ensemble. Actually, I could have cast the show multiple times from the talented actors that braved the auditions, but the final six became "the ones" because of the chemistry between them. I am beyond excited! We also have a talented design team as well!”
When asked what the most challenging component is involved with bringing Steel Magnolias to the Players stage, Susan points to cultivating the interior focus of each actor. “The most challenging aspect of directing this play is keeping the ladies of Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, REAL and make sure they don’t come off as caricatures. The lines assigned to the characters are funny and can easily be delivered as 'one liners'; but to do so, in my opinion, cheapens the story and eliminates important layers. These are not simple women. They are complicated, funny, strong, loyal, vulnerable and intelligent. To reduce them to a punch line in my opinion is an insult to who they truly are - Steel Magnolias!”
Regarding the specific appeal of Steel Magnolias to Susan as a director, and what she feels most distinguishes this play and makes it so appealing to audiences, she quickly points to the powerful poignancy of the work as a whole.
“I have been in two productions of Steel Magnolias. First in 1991 at the very theatre where I am now directing the play, when I performed the role of Truvy; and the second time was two years ago at The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan, where I am a Resident Artist and a member of Actors Equity. There I played the role of Clairee. I have been involved in theatre for 33 years, 29 of those years on Community Theatre Stages in Bay City and Clarkston, where I have resided since leaving Bay City 22 years ago; and having spent the last four years at The Purple Rose.”
“I can say, without pause, that, Steel Magnolias is one of my favorite stories. Definitely in my top three. The writing is lovely, the story is relatable - not just for women, but also for men. My last time around, as Clairee, the theatre where we brought the play to life is quite intimate - 164 seats with a Thrust Stage. The stage is almost flush with the first row of seats, which brought you so close with the audience that it was easy to see (peripherally) the reaction of your audience.”
“I would catch the wiping of tears by just as many men as women, “concludes Susan. “This is the story of their sisters, mothers and wives. That is what makes it so appealing to both men and women and will stand the test of time. To be directing, Steel Magnolias for the Bay City Players is an honor!”
Equally, Players' Operations Manager Kathy Pawloski is quick to return the compliment: "We're so excited and grateful that Susan was able to find time in her busy schedule to work with us. She may have left Bay City 22 years ago, but a piece of her will always be with Players."
Bay City Players production of ‘Steel Magnolias’ will run from March 17-19 and 24-16th. For tickets and more information visit baycityplayers.com or phone 989-893-5555. Bay City Players is located at 1214 Columbus in Bay City.