When aspiring actor Robert Harling lost his younger sister to complications of diabetes, his friends encouraged him to write down his feelings as a means of coping with his grief.
The resulting short story continued to evolve and grow in content until it became the full-length play "Steel Magnolias," which was famously adapted into a feature film starring Julia Roberts, Sally Fields, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine and Daryl Hannah.
The movie's success is both a blessing and a curse for the stage play from which it sprang. The six leading ladies so perfectly captured the spirits of their characters that it can be difficult for audiences to imagine any others playing those roles, a circumstance that makes Parkland College Theatre's production of "Steel Magnolias" a bold choice to open its 2012-13 season.
Directed by Amy E. Stoch and starring Jesse Debolt, Kari Keating, Susan Sheahan, Deb Richardson, Diane Pritchard and Kenna Mae Reiss, Parkland's staging of "Steel Magnolias" will run through Oct. 7.
Fans of the movie, which earned Roberts an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress and spawned at least two spin-off television series, will certainly recognize many of the lines from the movie. But some hidden gems reserved for the stage production will certainly surprise and delight audiences.
Harling's script is tightly written, and the banter among the women is rapid-fire, never softening its relentless pace, making "Steel Magnolias" a demanding role for all of the actors and a treat for theatergoers. I noticed that during Parkland's production, a variety of jokes caused a variety of audience members to out-rightly guffaw, further highlighting the quality of the script.
There were a few stumbles early during Thursday's performance, but the conversational tone of the script left open opportunities for the actors to recover, which they happily did. The actors seemed to settle into their roles considerably during the second act, leaving me to conclude that the beginning rough spots can be attributed to opening-night jitters.
While each of the actors did a fine job (that's "fine" as in "delightfully satisfying" — not "fine" as in "meh" — to be clear), there were two obvious standouts, and they were not in the roles that I was expecting.
Richardson's and Pritchard's respective portrayals of old friends Clairee Belcher and Ouiser Boudreax are wonderfully executed.
The two play off one another in a manner that conveys the underlying love beneath their ruthless jabs.
Pritchard's Ouiser swings between frequent temper tantrum-like fits and the occasional moments of tenderness, allowing the audience further access to the complexities of this sheep in wolf's clothing.
Not to be outdone, Richardson's deadpan delivery puts some of the best lines on full display, much to the delight of the audience. Together, the duo proves definitively that a joke is only as good as its delivery — and they do so with wonderful results.
The remaining four actors are well-tuned in their roles, though I can't help but feel that some opportunities were missed — namely, a scene in which Debolt's Shelby suffers a seizure wherein the women seem borderline nonchalant in the way that they attempt to assuage the attack, and later when Keating delivers an emotional monologue as a response to her daughter's death, which seems to affect her four dearest friends far less than one might expect from the buildup to the scene.
(Yes, that's giving away a major plot point, but when dealing with a 13-year-old blockbuster is there really such a thing as a "spoiler"?)
The set design was impressive and, dare I say, contained more artifacts than my first apartment.
I would fully support any theatergoer's decision to arrive to the show early in order to feast on the myriad details presented for our enjoyment.
The production itself runs a bit more than two hours, with a 10-minute intermission. The theater is freezing, as usual, so I suggest dressing warmly so as not to be distracted during the performance.
Still, the two hours flew by for me, as the actors on-stage whisked me away, back to my days as a young girl when I would tag along with my great-grandmother to her weekly trips to the beauty salon up the block so that I might silently eavesdrop on the gossip of the women who flocked there.
It was indulgent escape then, and it remains that way now — with much credit given to the thoroughness of the production staff.
Mary Wyczolkowski is a freelance writer for The News-Gazette.
If you go
What: Parkland College Theatre presents "Steel Magnolias" by Robert Harling, directed by Amy Stoch and starring Susan Sheahan, Kenna Mae Reiss, Deb Richardson, Jesse Debolt, Kari Keating and Diane Pritchard
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 3 p.m. Oct. 7
Where: Parkland Theatre, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., C
Tickets: $14 for adults, $12 for students and seniors, $10 each for groups of 15 or more (Half-price Night is Thurday)
Reservations: 351-2528; http://theatre.parkland.edu/