ST. PETERSBURG — Robert Harling’s heartwarming play “Steel Magnolias” opens at the American Stage Theatre May 23 and will run until June 15. This production, directed by Bob Devin Jones, features an all-African-American cast.
The work centers on six southern women in fictional Chinquapin County, La. and opens with them converging at Truvy’s beauty parlor on the wedding day of Shelby, a young diabetic woman. Among the play’s plotlines is Shelby’s decision to have a child despite the complications that may ensue for a woman with her health issues.
Although the heart of the story involves Shelby’s relationship with her mother, M’Lynn, the various characters go through their own individual journeys over a three-year period. The group of women, which includes Truvy the beautician, the sour, curmudgeonly Ouiser, the tentative newcomer Annelle and the benevolent widow of the late mayor, Clairee.
“It’s about sisterhood, love, fellowship,” Jones said. “It’s about a very particular community of women who love each other and who laugh together, cry together and face life together. There might be sunshine there might be rain and rain might be exactly what you need, but sometimes you need somebody to hold your hand.”
Louisiana native Harling adapted his play for a popular 1989 movie starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton and a young Julia Roberts, among other standout stars and a 2012 TV movie version with all African-American actors starred Queen Latifah and Phylicia Rashad.
Jones, a veteran director, writer and co-founder of Studio@620, believes the work has a universal appeal.
“Everybody desires and everybody has a want and a place they are in their life and a place they want to travel to,” he said.
Whitney Drake, fresh off her role as Dorothy in the American Stage in the Park production of “The Wiz,” sees a connection between herself and her character Shelby.
“Pink is her signature color and it’s also mine!” she said. “Also, Shelby lives life to the fullest—no matter what—even though she’s sick. And I think that’s amazing. That’s what I love about her the most. She doesn’t let her sickness stop her from doing anything.”
For several years Drake has been working out of Miami for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines where she has done shows such as “Hairspray.” Some of her other credits include “Dream Girls,” “Big River” and “Little Shop of Horrors” in Largo. She feels more at home in a high-energy musical production like “The Wiz,” but is excited about embracing her role in this poignant comedy-drama.
“I am more comfortable when I have to sing,” she confessed. “It is definitely my comfort zone. I could do that all the time! So to come into this new environment with people who have been doing it for their entire lives? I’m nervous. But it’s amazing, this journey.”
The overall experience itself has been a new one for Drake, who was impressed and intrigued by director Jones’ approach.
“When I was called to do the reading,” she recalled, “I had no clue what ‘Steel Magnolias’ was. Before we started reading, Bob had us talk about the women who have influenced us, and then we sang a song so we all kind of came together. And at that moment I said, ‘I want to be a part of this.’ This man [Jones] knows what he’s doing!”
Fanni Green, who plays Shelby’s mother M’Lynn, is a veteran of theater and made no bones about her primary reason for taking part in this production.
“I wanted to work with Bob Devin Jones,” said Green, a professor at the USF School of Theatre and Dance. “I have admired his work and have wanted to work with him! And I wanted to continue to establish a professional relationship outside of teaching and directing. I’ve never done anything here in St. Pete where I grew up, born and raised.”
Green has embraced her role as Shelby’s mother, claiming “it’s fun to bring life to art,” as she is herself a mother. She sees the play’s mother-daughter relationship as a period of transition.
“What’s exciting about M’Lynn is that she’s living in a moment of transition with her daughter,” Green explained. “Her daughter has been living with diabetes and her mother has been taking care of her. And her mother has taught her to be normal, to be self-sufficient, to be strong, to face the world. And now everything she’s taught her daughter, her daughter is practicing on her now. She’s now making her own decisions, despite whatever her mother gives her. She’s exercising her will.”
The real-life connection between Green and Drake is evident even when they sit next to each other, swapping smiles and exchanging knowing looks.
“The chemistry is so strong,” Whitney affirmed. “We had that connection from the first day.”
Green echoed the sentiment: “It’s a gift,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t get that in performances and you figure out how to manufacture that as truthfully as you can. And this we don’t have to do,” she said, smiling at Drake.
Chemistry is an integral part of “Steel Magnolias,” as the intertwining stories of the characters make for a moving work of intimacy and bonding. Rounding out the strong cast is Perri Gaffney (Ouiser), Brandy Grant (Annelle), Tia Jemison (Truvy) and Erica Sutherlin (Clairee).
“This story is absolutely gorgeous,” Green said. “Who would not enjoy a story about love and friendship and family and connections?”