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Delicate as magnolias, but as tough as steel: Six strong women use humour to get through their heartache

May 22, 2024

The heartwarming comedy-drama set in a beauty salon uses wit, charm and laughter to show that strength grows out of friendships.

Steel Magnolias is a floral tribute to writer Robert Harling's late sister, Susan.

Perennial favourite Steel Magnolias is the slice-of-life tale of six resilient Southern women who gather at an in-home beauty salon to offer advice, share their grief, and provide support.

This touching comedy-drama takes root at Hamilton Family Theatre Cambridge from June 19 to July 6, before being transplanted in Penetanguishene’s King’s Wharf Theatre from July 11 to July 28.  

Acclaimed actor and singer Sheila McCarthy directs, with Lauren Bowler, Ellen Denny, Sharon Heldt, Mary Pitt, Chick Reid and Blythe Wilson playing the eponymous flowers.

Despite taking place in the late ‘80s when it was written, Steel Magnolia’s themes remain universal and timeless. The two-act, four-scene play is set in the fictional northwest Louisiana community of Chinquapin, in Truvy’s Beauty Shop, where the six characters gather to discuss current events and unleash snarky one-liners.

If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me.

Clairee, Steel Magnolias

Although it is best known for the 1989 hit movie, the observational saga was first produced as a play, which was written by Dothan, Alabama native Robert Harling. Born in 1951, he studied in Louisiana and New Orleans to become a lawyer, but never used his legal education. Instead, he moved to New York to pursue his dream of becoming an actor.

Steel Magnolias is based on the experiences of his younger sister, Susan, who died in 1985 at the age of 33. Shortly after giving birth to a son two years earlier, her circulatory system and kidneys began to fail due to Type 1 diabetes complications. A kidney transplant and dialysis were unsuccessful.

As a tribute to Susan, and to help process his grief, Harling wrote a short story about the last three years of her life, which he hoped would also show his infant nephew what kind of person his late mother was.

I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.

Shelby, Steel Magnolias

Not long afterwards, he adapted the story into a play that was produced off-Broadway in 1987. Praised for its witty dialogue and depiction of female camaraderie, it was an instant hit and a huge global success after being translated into 17 languages, including Japanese, Chinese, French, Swedish, Spanish and Italian.

Harling wrote the movie adaptation, and he appeared in a small role as a minister, one of several male characters that he added to his original all-female stage version. He shared the screen with Hollywood royalty Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts.

Roberts played Shelby, the fictionalized version of Harling’s sister. He told an interviewer, “She walked into the room, and that smile lit everything up, and I said, ‘That’s my sister,’ so she joined the party, and she was magnificent.”

Steel Magnolia’s other characters are modelled on Harling’s mother and her friends. According to him, the play’s title comes from the idea that the “female characters are as delicate as magnolias, but as tough as steel”. 

In the script's author’s note, he adds, “The women in this play are witty, intelligent, and above all, real characters. They in no way, shape or form are meant to be portrayed as cartoons or caricatures.”

The events in Steel Magnolias take place over a three-year period, during which time each character overcomes personal conflicts, drama and tragedy in their lives by realizing that it takes a bunch of friends to help them grow stronger.

Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.

Truvy, Steel Magnolias

Learn more about Steel Magnolias

Hamilton Family Theatre Cambridge

Steel Magnolias

June 19 to July 6, 2024

King's Wharf Theatre

Steel Magnolias

July 11 to July 28, 2024