Writer Robert Harling has a gift for blending pathos and comedy.
That’s evident in his most-famous work, “Steel Magnolias,” a story he adapted into a highly successful off-Broadway play and later into a movie.
Harling based his work on his younger sister’s death from diabetic complications. One of the characters, the diabetic Shelby, becomes pregnant against doctor’s orders — and loses her life.
More broadly, the comedy-drama centers on the bond among a group of six women in northwest Louisiana who meet every Saturday morning in a beauty salon and share life’s experiences.
The title is a characterization of Southern women — delicate as magnolias but tough as steel.
“Steel Magnolias” is next on stage at Upcounty Theatre.
“This is a wonderful play that enables us to portray strong women. What a gift!” said cast member Joni Donlon.
She plays Clairee, a woman who, in the words of Truvy, the beauty-salon owner, is “coming to terms with her grips.”
Recently widowed, she is trying to find her place in the community now that she’s no longer the mayor’s wife.
“Clairee is, what I like to term, a ‘snarky old woman who’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind,” said Donlon. “But she’s loving and loyal — a real ‘momma bear’ to all those she loves. The challenge in playing her is balancing the tough exterior with the vulnerability that’s just below the surface.”
Matti Jane Dickenson, who is directing, began working with Upcounty Theatre from its inception in 2008.
“Steel Magnolias” is her eighth production there, either as stage manager or director.
“This is my first time working on this show, but it has been a dream for many years, since I first saw it in college,” Dickenson said.
She submitted a proposal that the theater produce the play in 2015 and again in 2018, when it was accepted.
“It’s a great choice for our company, being a stationary set and showcasing our local talent,” Dickenson said. “What I love most about this play is the genuine and bodacious characters — the love they share and the witty one-liners they throw around with ease.”
Sometimes directors aim to make a fresh statement with a work. But since “Steel Magnolias” is “such a classic,” Dickenson said she didn’t want to change anything, “just bring these beloved characters to life for and with our community.”
What made the production “extra special,” she added, is “the bond these women share offstage. Many of us have been working together for years, and we even have a real-life mother and daughter playing M’Lynn and Shelby.”
Joanna Chilcoat is Truvy, whom she describes as a “fierce Southern woman with passions for romance, her friends, glamour and hair. She’s a girly girl, but she’s got a bite to her.”
Chilcoat loves the part, but, said she would have been happy to play any role.
“Matti has been speaking about ‘Steel Magnolias’ since I met her 6 years ago, so I knew she had a strong passion and vision for the project,” Chilcoat said.
There was also precedent. Dickensen previously directed ‘Vanities’ a while back at Upcounty, also with an all-female small cast. “Honestly, it was one of my favorite experiences I ever had in the theater,” Chilcoat said. “I knew ‘Steel Magnolias’ would follow that same path.”
Still, portraying Truvy has its challenges. “She is a friend and hostess. The other women are her bosom buddies, but also her customers. Finding that balance has been tricky.”
Alexandra Adams assistant-directed. The cast also consists of Karen Fleming, as Ouiser; Alexandra Guyker, as Annelle; Claire Smith, as Shelby; and Denise Smith as M’Lynn.
“Steel Magnolias” will run Jan. 18-26 at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. www.upcountytheatre.org.