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‘Steel Magnolias’ spotlights strong women at Looking Glass Playhouse

Did you hear cute little ol’ Shelby is expecting a baby with that “good ol’ boy” Jackson she married, and her mamma, M’Lynne, is just about at the end of her rope because of that whole diabetes thing and ... ?

You would have, if you had your hair done at Truvy’s beauty shop down Louisiana way. That’s where all the fine Southern ladies go to get all dolled up and hear latest gossip in “Steel Magnolias.” Looking Glass Playhouse’s latest production opens tonight at the theater in Lebanon.

“It’s all about six strong women and how they come together to handle whatever problems life hands them,” said director Jay Frey, who also designed the set. “They are delicate like magnolias, but they’re tough as steel when they have to be.”

Everybody who is anybody comes to Truvy’s to have her hair done. Truvy (Any Kinsella) dispenses shampoo and free advice along with her eager assistant Annelle (Kelly Schmid). Her customers include the town’s rich curmudgeon, Ouiser (Lynn Huelsmann); eccentric sweet-toothed millionaire, Clairee (Chris Wilson); and social leader M’Lynn (Anne Gargac Hunter), whose knockout daughter Shelby (Sara Sapp) is about to marry.

The play’s clever and hilarious dialogue moves toward tragedy when Shelby, who is diabetic, takes her chances with pregnancy and loses

“Everybody who has seen the movie knows she dies,” Frey said. “But the play is all about the strength of the women. When life hands them problems, they are there for each other. Men don’t support each other like that. Women become friends for life.”

Frey, who lives in Lebanon, has been involved in community theater for 46 years, including acting, set design, directing “and everthing in between.”

“Twenty-nine women showed up for auditions and I went with six. We had only six weeks to rehearse for this play, not the usual eight, so I needed solid actresses. They look good together on stage and they work together well, and that comes across on stage. I asked a lot of them and they all passed with flying colors.

Here’s what Frey said about her six talented actresses:

Anne Gargac Hunter: “Anne does a fabulous job. In this play, she is a professional and has to act and dress differently. She shows genuine concern for her daughter.”

Sara Sapp: “A couple of years ago,I directed her in “Wait Until Dark.” She was very good, so I knew she could handle the role of Shelby. ... Sara and Anne have a good mother-daughter bond. At times, they argue and it’s very believable.”

Amy Kinsella: “She is such a good actress that when she’s not on stage, you miss her. She has charisma and lights up the set.”

Kelly Schmid: “Her character starts out slow but comes on strong. She comes in naive and loosens up. Schmid handles the role well.”

Chris Wilson: “She is is a dear friend I’ve known for ten years. Any show she’s in, she’s the one you look for. She has great timing in delivering lines. She’ll definitely get most of the laughs.”

Lynne Huelsmann: “Ouiser is not her favorite role, but she has really grown into it. Now on stage, she is Ouiser. (“I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years.”)

All of these women could have been caricatures, Frey said. “But they’ve made them real characters. They are absolutely believable people.”

Anne Gargac Hunter, 38, of rural Pontoon Beach, is an office sports specialist in the library at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. But when she’s on stage in “Steel Magnolias,” she is totally M’Lynne, the concerned mom.

“M’Lynne is very much an organizer and magager,” Hunter said. “She wants control of her life. She doesn’t take challenges well. All she wants to do is protect her daughter, so she first has to come to terms with Shelby leaving her nest. She becomes more of a friend.”

Hunter’s biggest challenge was looking into the depth of her character, the many nuances, and bringing out those details.”

Hunter saw the 1989 movie, in which Sally Field played M’Lynne, when she was much younger. “But I didn’t watch it again until just recently. Sally was phenomenal, but I waited until I could come up with my own ideas.”

She has to go through the whole rage of emotions. “I’m in shock that Shelby is expecting, then I’m angry. M’Lynne eventually softens because it all comes down to that she loves her daughter.”

The most difficult thing for Hunter was the final scene before the funeral, where M’Lynne finally breaks down.

“It was challenging for me because I’ve had someone in my life who I lost way too early.”

What does Hunter want people to take away from the play when the final curtain falls?

“I hope they have a greater appreciation for the people in their lives. Life is so short ... you just never know.”

Frey is going for emotion.

“I hope the audience will be in tears. I hope they’re feeling the strength that women have to interconnect and overcome any problem, no matter how bad it is.”

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