Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Steel Magnolias

Delivering a dose of Southern charm

If you’ve seen either the play or film version of Steel Magnolias, you can probably quote it. The quippy dialogue and unforgettable characters are brought to life by actors who can capture the six women’s larger-than-life personalities. And now, with her 23 years of experience on the Toledo area theater scene, Courtney Gray is bringing playwright Robert Harling’s story to life at the Collingwood Arts Center.

“Steel Magnolias is the perfect start for me,” says Gray. “It’s a single set— the beauty shop.”

Unlike the movie, the play presents audiences with only the six female characters, which makes the extraneous character development happen through the women’s interactions with each other.

The heart of the matter

At the heart of Steel Magnolias lies the relationship between newlywed Shelby (Jacqueline Arvantis) and her mother M’Lynn (Jules McAlear), who feels that Shelby shouldn’t have children because she suffers from debilitating diabetes. There are moments that are heart wrenching to watch, but the story is filled with comic relief served up by all the characters, especially Ouiser and Clairee, a duo that stand out for their ability to ease the some of the most emotionally draining scenes.

“They have the iconic one-liners everyone associates with [the play and movie],” says Gray, adding that casting for these roles (made famous by Shirley Maclaine and Olympia Dukakis) wasn’t easy. “It’s hard because you don’t want to mimic the movie. When someone comes in to audition, they need to try to make it their own. I always saw Truvy [owner of the beauty shop] as flirty and sassy, and with Annelle, I wanted to see someone who could go from very timid to a wild child to a church girl.”

Perhaps what sets this production apart most is the fact that three of the women will be played by men, a first for any production of Steel Magnolias in Ohio. Gray says that the actors portraying Truvy (Aaron Knowles), Ouiser (Matthew Johnston), and Clairee (Jaymes Gregory Mull) are “killing it,” and one of the actors— as a well-known (but not to be disclosed) Toledo drag queen— was able to supply many of the wigs for the show.

Tragicomic moments

One of the most challenging aspects of directing Steel Magnolias has to be the lightning-fast transitions from laughter to tears. If it’s not done right, it could easily turn out to be a melodrama that people laugh at during all the wrong moments; for instance, the scene during which it’s revealed that Shelby has serious health issues.

Gray says, “It was a big concern of mine. You don’t want it to not look real; otherwise, it could look semi-comical.” The scene requires Arvantis to convey that Shelby is experiencing a diabetic seizure. The scene hits close to home for Gray, who has had similar diabetic attacks.

“I try to convey to the cast, ‘This is what it feels like when it happens.’”

Steel Magnolias is an enduring favorite because its characters present the ebbs and flows of women’s lives— what it’s like to be a worried mother, a headstrong daughter, to struggle with identity, lose intimacy with a partner, and ultimately what it means to have a support structure for those moments— all while using laughter to overcome even the most tragic events.

“I loved creating the dynamic between the characters and building that bond,” says Gray. “Being able to bring the whole thing to life is such a joy for me.”

$15. 8pm. Friday, March 29 and Saturday, March 30.
3pm. Sunday, March 31.
Collingwood Arts Center, 2413 Collingwood Blvd. 419-244-2787.

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