This post contains SPOILERS for Steel Magnolias. If you’re one of the few people in the English-speaking world unfamiliar with one of Julia Roberts’ most career-defining roles and doesn’t like spoilers, you may want to want to wait until you’ve seen Steel Magnolias to read this post. Thanks! – HP
Back in April, I took it into my head to audition for Good Company Players’ production of Steel Magnolias. I was feeling rested and refreshed after a recovering from producing Rogue Festival a month before and was looking for an opportunity to be involved in more traditional forms of theater again. The play (or rather, movie) was among my mother’s favorites and I was feeling optimistic. So I went.
I had never seen so many women in a single audition call; I was pleased enough to get a call back.
A few days later, I was offered the opportunity to understudy the role of M’Lynn (Sally Field’s character in the movie) and I took it gladly. I was dying to be in a rehearsal room again and understudying was a new challenge for me.
Little did I anticipate the richness of inner challenges the process would be for me. All in a good way, rest assured.
You see, looking back, I don’t think I would have been entirely equipped to take on M’Lynn for performance. But I was in just the right place to sit in a corner and watch the lovely Laurie Pessano tackle it.
Sally Field was my mother’s favorite actress, hands down. And M’Lynn was the role of hers with which my mother most intimately identified. When Steel Magnolias was released in movie theaters in 1989, we saw it together in a cinema in Stanford, CA. I was junior in high school and we were in Stanford because I was scheduled to go into the hospital for yet another electrophysiology test to see if a new surgery called an ablation could be effective for my congenital heart condition. If it was possible, the procedure could eventually stop the grand mal seizures that were becoming worse as I grew older, and could potentially save my life. I had been in and out of hospitals for several years.
So, there we sat, watching M’Lynn Eatenton wrestle with a strong-willed but medically delicate daughter. And then the daughter dies.
Yeah, my mom lost it. And I rolled my eyes because adults are ALWAYS embarrassing in public.
My mother died last summer and I’ve lived a good 20 years longer than some cardiologists thought I might. (And ablations are now commonplace procedures.) I’ll admit that being a part of a production of one of her favorite stories was one reason I showed up.
The reason I kept showing up, however, was the chance to study those lines and those scenes that moved my mother so strongly. The movie is a generally straight adaptation of the play in its structure and in most of its dialogue, aside from a few added scenes to fill out the world. I sat and I watched and I studied. I studied the lines and the scene work and the build of the play.
But also, I would watch Laurie build a another little bit of M’Lynn and work her way to the final release that completes the character. I would watch Biz and Tessa and Valerie do the work of building relationships on stage, loving and teasing and supporting their castmates – both onstage and off. I’d watch Emily and Chlorissa pick up new challenges and learn new skills, and follow the lead of the women around them. I’d watch Julie juggle props as prop mistress and lines as an understudy, doing whatever it takes to support the work. I’d see Sadie, sitting quietly in the back and observing. I’d watch Denise and Marikah watching the cast closely to craft moments and I’d watch Noel with his nose in the book.
In a way, that rehearsal room grew into its own little version of Truvy’s Salon, and not just because of the set building up behind it.
And I stopped rolling my eyes at my mother, because nearly every night I’ve watched Laurie Pessano say those final speeches about Shelby’s death, I nearly lose it. At 16, I couldn’t understand what my mother was going through. But at 45, watching people play it in front of me, I can feel a pretty good guess.
Some people say understudying sucks, and it kind of does. You memorize lines and spend time in rehearsal and hope to god you never have to go on. But I wouldn’t have given up sitting in these rehearsals for the world. What I’ve taken away from the experience is far, far more than I could have imagined.
Happy opening to the cast and crew of Steel Magnolias. Long live the ladies of Chinquapin Parish!
Steel Magnolias runs through October 14 at Good Company Players’ 2nd Space Theater in Fresno’s Tower District. Tickets and information here.