The Southern charm of “Steel Magnolias” will fill The Capitol — and hearts — with warmth the next two weekends, when Lonely Fish Productions presents the 1987 Robert Harling comedy-drama in Bend.
You’ll likely remember the 1989 film: It starred an ensemble of leading Hollywood women — Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Daryll Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine and Dolly Parton — as friends in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana. The close-knit group whose social lives orbit around a small town beauty parlor owned by Truvy (Parton’s character). There, they discuss their love lives, gossip about their neighbors and argue, support and love one another — all like the close friends they are.
Though the women do talk about the men in their lives, the film passes the Bechdel Test, according to bechdeltest.com. For those unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test, let’s paraphrase the site, which explains that in order to pass it with flying colors, a film “has to (1) have at least two (named) women in it (2) who talk to each other (3) about something besides a man.”
If you’re skeptical about the need for such a test, brace yourself: A lot of films fail to meet one, two or all three of the criteria. “Steel Magnolias,” on the other hand, passes all three, according to the site.
Two years before the story was captured on celluloid, “Steel Magnolias” began its life as an all-female play written by an actor, Robert Harling, in the wake of his sister Susan’s death from diabetes complications. According to a 1988 People magazine piece, “On Feb. 23, 1983, she delivered a healthy son, Robert. A year later, her kidneys failed, and a transplant donated by her mother failed to function. In October 1985, Susan died.”
Susan served as inspiration for Shelby in the play — the character played by Roberts in the film, and in Lonely Fish’s production by Kit Foreman (“Grounded”).
“‘Steel Magnolias’ is, in essence, a love letter from Robert Harling memorializing his sister and the beautiful and all-too-brief life that she lived,” Foreman wrote by email. “He wrote it as a way to process his grief, but it somehow became one of the most enduring shows we have. I think it’s because of the honesty of the characters — they ring true,” Foreman said.
The all-female cast includes director Karen Sipes as Shelby’s social worker mother, M’Lynn, Jaime Speed as wealthy widow Clairee, Robin Foye Edwards as the ornery Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux, Natalie Kniola as the salon’s reserved new employee Annelle Dupuy and Vanessa Farnsworth as the salon’s exuberant owner, Truvy.
Events big and small transpire in the women’s lives over the three years the play covers, but the biggest is Shelby’s pregnancy — which she decides to go through with despite medical advice about the complications that could ensue.
Foreman’s favorite Shelby line says it all: “I’d rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”
You may experience a sense of deja vu while watching this show: Sipes, a longtime performer and director in area community theater, directed most of the cast — Kniola, Speed, Farnsworth and Foye Edwards — in “9 to 5: The Musical” at Cascades Theatre in 2018.
“I joke with Vanessa about casting her in role that isn’t a Dolly Parton movie role at some point,” Sipes said. “The fact that she is actually a beautician has helped considerably, but all of them have the ability and personal warmth and sass needed for these strong characters.”
Foreman, marking her first time working with Sipes, is a newcomer to the group.
“I’m sort of the new kid on the block. It’s not often that I get a chance to work with so many people I’ve never worked with before,” Foreman said. “Everyone seems to truly care about their characters. It has been a joy to watch everyone build their characters, and to watch the women of Chinquapin come to life. This play cannot be done with a weak or fractured ensemble, it just wouldn’t work.”
The six women “are fierce, they are loyal to a fault, and they love and support one another desperately. There is far too little media that characterizes women as lifting each other up, rather than pitting them against each other. Each character is markedly distinct from the next, and they aren’t cheap paper stereotypes — they’re real,” Foreman said.
“Doing this play creates a foundation that allows a female cast to bond together, and to explore themes of femininity and womanhood in a supportive environment,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of deep and difficult discussions as a cast, many of which have had to do with our own experiences as female in a world that often feels geared against us.”