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Steel Magnolias at 30

Asbury Memorial Theatre takes on timeless classic

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IN THE late '80s, the film adaptation of Steel Magnolias riveted the nation's attention to the hilarious and ultimately touching camaraderie of six Southern women, all brought together by tragedy.

It also starred some of the most recognizable female faces in show business.

“Don’t come here looking for somebody doing a Dolly Parton impression,” laughs Carmel Garvin Hearn, who is directing the Asbury Memorial Theatre production, which is now celebrating 30 years since Robert Harling’s play debuted.

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“Audiences are going to be surprised at the faces and body types — they may not be what they thought. These are their own women. We don’t have someone done up to look like Julia Roberts playing Shelby.”

Hearn assures us, however, that it will take no time at all to adjust.

“After the first few minutes you won’t be able to imagine anyone but these six women. These six actresses are so strong in their craft,” she says.

Amie Schultz plays Shelby, Ginger Miles plays Ouiser, Frannie Williams is Truvy, Ellen McGraw is Clairee, Toye Hickman is Annelle, and Asbury Theatre co-founder and longtime veteran Cheri Hester plays Shelby’s mother M’Lynn.

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While Hearn is familiar with the show, as most of us are, she’s never directed it.

“The more I began to research it, the more I realized I have to learn. The learning process has been marvelous. The content has surprised me how profound and funny it is. It touches on every one of the emotions,” she says.

“But it’s not just about women — it’s about the human spirit, and how we affect people in our lives that are important to us.”

Hearn says, “When you walk out of the theatre, you’ll probably be thinking you need to call a particular person who’s very important to you. You’ll want to call them and thank them.”

Indeed, that’s partially what inspired playwright Harling in the first place.

“When he wrote this show, he wrote it in part to his sister’s child. So they would know what a wonderful person his sister Susan was. She died in similar circumstances to the show’s character of Shelby.”

Hearn says the play in large part came about almost as a therapeutic process.

“He couldn’t seem to get over sister’s death, he didn’t know how to come to grips with it,” she says.

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“A friend advised him to write down his thoughts on paper. And this story poured forth from him. It changed his life, and has changed so many lives since.”

A woman-centric story in the 1980s was a bit unusual for that time. In today’s world, where gender issues are often paramount, does Steel Magnolias seem a little dated?

“Harling wrote this play so brilliantly that you don’t go there anywhere like that in the show. You never catch yourself saying, ‘Oh that’s just the way it was back in the ‘80s,’” laughs Hearn.

“The way it is for them is the way it always was and always will be. That core, that essence,” she says.

“None is defined necessarily just by their femininity or their husbands or former husbands. They are all living the lives they want to live. They make their own choices.”

What about the irony that such a timeless tale of the strength of women was written by a man?

“It’s the lens that he put on these women — it was his lens on an extremely important woman in his life. We can all view the people in our lives no matter what, for who they truly they are,” she says.

“These pearls of comedy and wisdom just flow out of their mouths. He heard these kinds of things all his life but only then did he write them down.”

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Speaking of Steel Magnolias, Asbury Memorial

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