This weekend is a big one for Denton Community Theatre.
The downtown theater company kicks off its 50th season — a feat and a milestone for a small arts nonprofit.
The company celebrates with the openings of Steel Magnolias and “Hooks, Hose & Hats — 50 Years of DCT Costumes.”
Denton Community Theatre opens its golden season with the Robert Harling classic. Best known for the 1989 film adaptation, Steel Magnolias turns 30 this year.
Director Nancy Chumbley said this production marks her first show with an all-adult cast. A longtime theater teacher, Chumbley is also a longtime Steel Magnolias fan.
“I’ve become a steel magnolia through this show,” she said. “We all have. I didn’t realize I was such a Southern woman, didn’t realize I had such a Southern heart, until I watched these women perform this show.”
The play is set in the fictitious Chinquapin Parish during the 1980s. Beautician Truvy Jones works her magic on a group of women who visit her home salon for more than just a cut and style. Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn Eatenton, spar over Shelby’s future. Lifelong friends Ouiser Boudreaux and Clairee Belcher spar over everything. Annelle Dupuis just wants to settle in as Truvy’s new hire and maybe — just maybe — haul her life out of a ditch.
“I think this is the epitome of what Southern life is like,” Chumbley said.
When she delved into her research for the play, Chumbley found that playwright Harling wrote the play after the death of his sister. He borrowed his characters, their turns of phrase and the cadence of their color commentary from his Natchitoches home.
“This is a bring-your-girlfriend kind of show,” Chumbley said. “The salon is a gathering place. I remember going to these places when I was little. The same women were always there whenever we went. It was very much like the show.”
Eagle eyes in the audience will notice pictures of the film cast — Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine — around Truvy’s place on the Denton stage.
“Because it’s the 30th anniversary, we wanted to pay tribute and put up beauty pictures of them,” Chumbley said.
The actresses in the all-woman show said they were drawn to the project for different reasons.
“It’s one of my favorite movies, and the play is a celebration of female friendships. I think that should be celebrated,” said Anne Scaggs, who plays M’Lynn, a suburban wife and mom preoccupied with her only daughter, Shelby, whose diabetes has been hard to control and continues to erode her health.
“My mom and I watch this movie all the time, and I cry every time. Every single time,” said Kirby Kelso, who plays the headstrong Shelby, who is thrilled to be getting married and devastated that her diabetes means motherhood could be danger. “The story comes all the way around. Shelby says she would do anything for her child. And then M’Lynn gives up her kidney for Shelby.”
Connie Lane plays the well-to-do Clairee, a recent widow with means and an appetite for more life.
“The cynical side of me wants to do this show because there aren’t any other shows for women like this for this season,” Lane said. “But the other side of me just loves this show. Twenty-nine years ago, I played Annelle. I can’t play Annelle now, but I can play Clairee. I played Clairee at TWU in 1994. Keep in mind everyone else in the production was like 19.”
Lane and Sharon Barnhill, who plays the prickly but good-hearted Ouiser Boudreaux, play a pair of friends who are polar opposites, but forgiving.
“Ouiser has no social filter,” said Barnhill, who just played the role of Truvy at the Garage Door Theater at the Pilot Point Community Opera House. “Clairee and Ouiser have history. They were girls together. I think Clairee has always picked Ouiser up when she’s down.”
Lane said the characters cross swords out of habit, but the intent is to reach out. In the safety of Truvy’s Beauty Spot, Ouiser and Clairee let down their guards with everyone else.
“They really are each other’s rock,” Lane said. “Up until Ouiser starts dating Owen, Clairee is probably the closest person to her.”
Melissa Sims plays Truvy, and is working hard to keep from imitating Dolly Parton, who played Truvy in the film.
“I’ve watched this movie for 30 years,” Sims said. “I think there was some concern that I wouldn’t be able to do well behind the chair, but I have three little girls and I do Nutcracker hair. It’s no big deal.”
Sims said she walked into auditions willing to play any role.
“I thought about M’Lynn, probably because I have so many children,” said Sims, a mom of five. “When I got the email saying I made the show, I went out onto the patio and told my husband, ‘Truvy.’ He said, ‘Of course.’ And then I was like, ‘Of course.’”
The cast said that to stage the show they want, they have to center themselves on generosity.
“I just have to work hard and be as available to all these people,” Sims said. “I love working with people who give on stage. It makes you want to serve it right back.”
Scaggs said she feels responsible to her peers.
“This is the first role I’ve had like this since I was about 15,” she said. “I don’t want to disappoint anyone on this stage. And I didn’t know this was a real story until this show. The movie doesn’t say anything about being based on a real story. I want to be the right mother to Susan, the real-life woman who died. I want to honor that.”
Lane said Chumbley has let the cast make discoveries through the script and through the chemistry that unfolds during performances.
“I’ve definitely pulled some stuff up, and Nancy has been really great about letting us use these things that come up. That’s not something you get with every show,” she said.
Barnhill said the success of the show rests on something simple.
“We really trust each other,” she said. “That makes all the difference in the world, really.”