'Steel Magnolias' Are Still Blooming

In 1987, Robert Harling wrote a short story which became a play to help him deal with the anger he felt at the death of his beloved younger sister due to complications from diabetes.

The play was “Steel Magnolias,” which opened last Friday evening on South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage Auditorium.

It opened off Broadway in 1987 and two years later became a movie. Since then it returned (briefly) to Broadway in 2005 and next month will air as a Lifetime channel movie. Whether it helped Harling — who turned from playwriting to scriptwriting — or not, it has entertained many audiences since then.

The original script calls for six women. The film and the TV movie added men. While producers of those vehicles must have felt the need of male presences, it works as well if not better by leaving the off-stage men to the imagination of the audiences. After all, it is the women, not the men, to whom Harling’s title was referring.

In the quarter century since its first production, “Steel Magnolias” has proven itself a solid choice for community and regional theater companies around the world. With its focus on the redeeming qualities of real friendship, it offers an ageless application to audiences of all ages.

In 1987, Robert Harling wrote a short story which became a play to help him deal with the anger he felt at the death of his beloved younger sister due to complications from diabetes.

The play was “Steel Magnolias,” which opened last Friday evening on South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage Auditorium.

It opened off Broadway in 1987 and two years later became a movie. Since then it returned (briefly) to Broadway in 2005 and next month will air as a Lifetime channel movie. Whether it helped Harling — who turned from playwriting to scriptwriting — or not, it has entertained many audiences since then.

The original script calls for six women. The film and the TV movie added men. While producers of those vehicles must have felt the need of male presences, it works as well if not better by leaving the off-stage men to the imagination of the audiences. After all, it is the women, not the men, to whom Harling’s title was referring.

In the quarter century since its first production, “Steel Magnolias” has proven itself a solid choice for community and regional theater companies around the world. With its focus on the redeeming qualities of real friendship, it offers an ageless application to audiences of all ages.

Under the direction Debra Godwalt-Swerman, the sextet of actresses keeps the dialogue moving. Audiences familiar with the script must realize the abundance of cliched one-liners which can be successfully integrated by a veteran cast. There are a lot of laughs but not a lot of substance until the final scene of the two act, four-scene “dramady,” which covers a time period of several years. For the most part, the “action” here is relegated — not necessarfily — to sitting or standing and delivering lines.

“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” says Truvy Jones (Shelly Ambroziak), owner/operator of Truvy’s Clip ‘n ‘Curl, a small beauty shop in Chinquapin, LA., where the ladies gather each Saturday morning for coffee, gossip and the latest (?) hairstyles.

Today, the focus is on Shelby Eatenton-soon-to-be-Latcherie, who will walk down the aisle later in the day. As played by Elizabeth Bonne, Shelby is a girl of spirit, humor, courage and endless empathy. She knows what she wants, whether it’s babies-breath in her bridal coiffure or a baby in her newly-formed family, and she allows nothing to lessen her calm-but-steely determination. Bonne creates a fully realized character that carries the ring of truth.

Steel Magnolias South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreAs her mother M’Lynn Eatenton, Pam Gunterman delivers a heartbreaking descripton of her daughter’s death in a beautifully understated fourth scene monologue. Unfortunately, it is too soon replaced by a screeching breakdown that is way too high on the decible level to be moving.

Around these two swirl the wisecracks delivered by Truvy (Shelly Ambroziak), everyone’s favorite shoulder-to-cry-on and keeper of under-the-dryer secrets; Annelle Dupuy-Desoto (Michelle Miller), Truvy’s latest employee who goes from deserted bride to hippie chick to born again Christian, wife and mother to be; Clairee Belcher (Martha Branson-Banks), recent widow, football fan and eventual owner of the town’s radio station; and Ouiser Boudreaux (Marty Smith), bad-tempered town curmudgeon whose angry outbursts are designed to conceal a good heart.

Scene designer Jacee Rohlick does her best to turn the very large stage into an intimate beauty shop. The props committee headed by Teri Szynski has procured the appropriate hair paraphernalia including one working shampoo bowl. The change to the Christmas season between scenes one and two could, however, use a lot more holiday trappings, especially since the decoration is supposedly the work of arts-and-crafts maven Annelle who is enamoured with “glitz.”

“STEEL MAGNOLIAS” plays through Sept. 23 in the theater at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For information and reservations call (574) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org

Sanders Family Finale for Elkhart Civic

Elkhart Civic Theatre audiences were introduced to the gospel-singing Sanders Family in 2007 when “Smoke on the Mountain” was a surprise hit of the ’07-’08 season at the Bristol Opera House.

Never one to loose track of a good thing, ECT brought back Vera and Burl Sanders and their mostly-musical progeny several years later for a holiday celebration in “Smoke on the Mountain Christmas.” Since everything comes in threes, the theater group opened its 2012-13 season Friday with the final third of the “Smoke” trilogy, “Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming.”

Nothing much has changed since the first encounter with the traveling family troupe. The two-hour (including intermission) program still is filled with Christian songs, old and new, and the witness speeches given by each family member still are lots of fun with humorously applicable messages for listeners of all ages.

Elkhart Civic Theatre audiences were introduced to the gospel-singing Sanders Family in 2007 when “Smoke on the Mountain” was a surprise hit of the ’07-’08 season at the Bristol Opera House.

Never one to loose track of a good thing, ECT brought back Vera and Burl Sanders and their mostly-musical progeny several years later for a holiday celebration in “Smoke on the Mountain Christmas.” Since everything comes in threes, the theater group opened its 2012-13 season Friday with the final third of the “Smoke” trilogy, “Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming.”

Nothing much has changed since the first encounter with the traveling family troupe. The two-hour (including intermission) program still is filled with Christian songs, old and new, and the witness speeches given by each family member still are lots of fun with humorously applicable messages for listeners of all ages.

Back to reprise their parental roles are Thomas Doughty as guitar-playing dad Burl and Susan South as his tried-and-true helpmate, Vera. Also returning are Karen Hoover as June Sanders (now Oglethorpe) and Douglas J. Lunn, Ph.D., as her hovering hubby, the Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe. Mervin and June are expecting at any minute and he has been called from the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in North Carolina (where the “Homecoming” takes place) to a congregation in a small Texas town, a move which all are trying to accept with positive attitudes. The returning family members are right at home in their familiar roles, with Vera and Mervin continuing their one-upmanship contest Bible-verse-wise and her story for the children’s portion of the service flying (not so) high with aerodynamic metaphors.

Smoke on the Mountain  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INNew to the third “Smoke” are Kelsey Olsen as Denise Sanders Culpepper, frequentlly distracted mother of twins; Zach Rivers as her twin brother Dennis, called to fill his father’s pulpit; and Joshua D. Padgett as the repentant family black sheep Uncle Stanley Sanders. All seem to fit right in to the slightly mis-matched family portrait.

Let me say that enjoying the Sanders family is a non-denominational pleasure. No doubt some of the 25 songs in the program will be familiar, but all of them are really good to hear, either for the first time or time again, with the solid blend of voices adding depth to the music and the words. There are several that will set your toes tapping and your hands clapping in rhythm and some that will bring tears to your eyes because, as Uncle Stanley says, “Gospel songs make you remember.”

Comedic highlights are a “yee-haw” rendition of “Roundup In the Sky,” delivered by Lunn with true Texas abandon, and everything for which June provides her own system of “signing.” She is obviously not from the Annie Sullivan school of signing, but her literal translations continue to be genuinely funny. This is especially true of the Act One “River Medley,” made up of four traditional gospel songs for which June provides aquatically-based signing which grows less and less bouyant as the songs progress.

Director John Shoup has again provided the Sanders with a truly believable small church setting. Providing musical accompaniment are Miriam Houck, John Nymeyer,Chris Beyer, Ann Noble and Steve Colagrossi. Lending their voices to the hyms are members of the church choir Dawn and Brandon Blessing, Elise Davis, Karen and Dallas Johnston, Jay and Lori Kruss, Rachel Schrock and Carly Swendsen.

“SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN HOMECOMING” will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Sept. 21 and 22 and at 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on SR 120 in Bristol. For reservations and information, call 848=4116 from 1 to 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org