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Laughing Through Tears: A 25th Anniversary Performance of Steel Magnolias

Judith Ivey directed a touching benefit performance of Robert Harling's masterpiece Steel Magnolias. logo

"Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion," Truvy, a homegrown-beauty-salon owner in the (fictitious) parish of Chinquapin, Louisiana, says in Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias, which originally opened Off-Broadway in 1987. Last night, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, it felt as if she was reading our minds.

Steel Magnolias, which is set entirely in Truvy's beauty salon, is about community. It's a simple story revolving around six complex women dealing with life and death and blow-dryers -- women who take life's punches together, and keep each other laughing in the process.

That sense of community was overwhelmingly present last night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, as Tony Award winner Judith Ivey directed – and unexpectedly acted in – a staged reading of Robert Harling's play to commemorate its 25th anniversary. Profits from the production went to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a cause close to the playwright's heart; Harling wrote Steel Magnolias about (and in honor of) his sister, who died of type 1 diabetes.

Harling took to the stage to explain how closely the story follows his family. "Everything about it was true," said Harling."There was an armadillo groom's cake. My father shot [his gun] into the yard…My father still shoots [his gun] into the yard."
Playwright Robert Harling catches the audience up to date on Steel Magnolia's characters, which are based on real people, after a 25th anniversary reading at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
The intimacy of the story – women sharing their lives within the confines of a back-o'-house parlor, combined with the intimacy of Harling watching his own family's story from the audience more than twenty-five years after he penned it -- charged the evening with emotion. The audience roared with laughter and audibly sobbed – sometimes simultaneously. [Guilty.]

"We enjoy being nice to each other," Truvy, whose part was read by screen actress Annie Potts (Designing Women), says in the play. "There's not much else to do in this town."

When TheaterMania interviewed Ivey before the show, she predicted the play would resonate with New Yorkers, despite the obvious differences between Small Southern Towns and The City to Which People From Small Towns Flee. "In New York City, your neighborhood becomes a small town," Ivey said. "There's a small town feeling. I get locked into neighborhoods and never want to leave."

Ivey, who directed a version of Steel Magnolias at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas, said that the close-knit friendships depicted in the play are still possible in the big city. "In New York, you have to work harder to make friends," she said. "[The city] doesn't have the friendly façade of the south, but it's not unfriendly. And a lot of times, the friendliness of the south is not as genuine as the friendliness of New York City…People here can keep to themselves more. But once you befriend someone in New York, it's a very strong friendship."

Last night, the very strong friendships in Steel Magnolias were depicted by Potts, Ivey (reading as the sharp-tongued Clairee), Sarah Stiles (reading as the new-girl-turned-Jesus-freak Annelle), Margo Martindale, the original Truvy (reading as the charmingly cranky Ouiser), Celia Keenan-Bolger (reading as Shelby, the pink-obsessed newlywed who suffers from diabetes), Jan Maxwell (reading as the strong-as-steel M'Lynn, Shelby's mother), and Kevin O'Rourke (playing a DJ for Chinquapin Parish's public radio station). Constance Shulman, who played Annelle in the original production, read the stage directions in a Southern drawl, with comedic timing that made them almost as hilarious as the dialogue.

"Commemorating twenty five years of telling the wonderful tale of my mother and sister is nice," Harling said, after bouquets of magnolias were distributed to the night's leading ladies. "These incredibly talented [cast members] remind me how important it is that we all play a part in each other's lives."

The cast of a special 25th anniversary stage reading of Steel Magnolias, backstage with the playwright, Robert Harling.