After the death of his younger sister to diabetes, American writer Robert Harling penned a short story, “Steel Magnolias,” which he later adapted into the 1987 off-Broadway hit play.
Harling also wrote the screenplay for the 1989 film version, which became a hit on the strength of the performances of its powerhouse ensemble cast which included Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Shirley Maclaine, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton and Daryl Hannah.
While director John Nunemaker might lack Harling’s family history, his background – a childhood spent in a rural area north of Hagerstown and getting his hair cut at a beauty salon – meshes with the play’s inherent strengths to give him a strong affinity for “Steel Magnolias,” which opens next month at Kensington Arts Theatre, where Nunemaker also serves as the theater’s artistic director.
The term “Steel Magnolias” is a particularly Southern expression that refers to women who combine both femininity and toughness.
The play, which draws on this expression, is a comedy-drama about a close-knit circle of friends – sometimes frenemies – whose lives blend in a beauty parlor every Saturday in a small parish in modern-day Louisiana. The owner, her assistant, and their four composite customers gossip, laugh, and give each other strength through the highs and lows of life.
A key aspect of the play – its depiction of strong women and only strong women –particularly attracted Nunemaker. Unlike the film, the play doesn’t boast a single male character, and takes place in its entirety within the confines of Truvy’s hair salon.
“Confining the action makes the play poignant, more concentrated and more powerful,” Nunemaker said.
“The play resonates with how I grew up and the women I grew up with,” he said. “It was a very matriarchal family.”
Moreover, KAT tends to present shows in which “the people are real, not caricatures,” he added.
Janet Replogle plays M’Lynn, the competent middle-aged professional woman who invests a great deal in her daughter, Shelby. Not to give too much away, but Shelby – who, like the playwright’s sister, suffers from diabetes – takes a risk that will impact on the story down the road.
Though Replogle has performed and directed with several area community theaters – including The Arlington Players and Rockville Little Theatre – Nunemaker’s show will be her debut performance at Kensington Arts Theatre,
“I hadn’t done ‘Steel Magnolias’ before, but I’ve seen the show several times and have always wanted to do it,” Replogle said. “Stories about strong women always appeal to me. I also like to explore relationships between characters, and this script is very rich in that regard.”
Repogle is also pleased to be playing M’Lynn, which was the part she wanted most when auditioning, though she also read for the part of Clairee, a wealthy widow and former first lady of the parish.
What’s difficult about her role is simultaneously what’s enjoyable about it, according to Replogle.
“The range of emotions M’Lynn displays is challenging in a fun way,” she said. “I like that I get to be funny, maternal and very dramatic. It’s a meaty role.”
One of the pleasant aspects of directing this production for Nunemaker has been that, like the characters in the play, the actors have “bonded” closely, without the “history” the characters have.
“No one in the cast knew each other before, though they knew certain people in common,” he said. “They even began to throw their stuff in one pile before rehearsals. Most of the time actors scatter them.”
Seconding the director, Replogle confirmed the bond.
“Emily Karol, playing Shelby, and I struck up a great rapport from the start, but I’ve really enjoyed working with everyone on the show,” she said.
“Steel Magnolias” runs Feb. 9 through Feb. 24 at Kensington Arts Theatre, Kensington Town Hall, 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington. For more information, call 240-621-0528 or visit: www.katonline.org.