Maltz Jupiter Theatre audiences have usually seen director Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s innovative work on musicals (The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof), but she jumped at the opportunity to stage Robert Harling’s tragicomic Steel Magnolias, about a handful of Southern women who gather each Saturday at a makeshift beauty salon. While fueled by comedy, their mettle is tested when the daughter of one of them faces a potentially fatal disease.
That is the reason producing artistic director and chief executive Andrew Kato was a little wary of offering Dodge the assignment. “You see, my sister passed away two years ago. I think he thought it might be too close to my experience,” she explains. “He carefully asked if I would do it. I kind of gasped a little bit and thought, ‘Am I going to be able to do this?’ And then I thought about my sister and about how much she would love it. And how much she would want to see it.
“So then I thought, I’m going to do it, for my mother and for my other two sisters who are still alive. It’s a final tribute.”
Like some of her prime cast members, Dodge has to work against not being pigeonholed in musicals. “And our play is musical. There’s music in the text. I stage in a very physical score kind of way. There is a method to the chaos that we’re creating here. Plays are simply not that different from musicals. We don’t stop and listen to a song, but there are arias in this piece.”
The company features two two-time Tony nominees – Crista Moore (Gypsy and Big, the Musical) as M’Lynn, the overprotective mom of fragile Shelby, and Alison Fraser (Romance/Romance and The Secret Garden), as Clairee, widow of the Louisiana town’s previous mayor.
Agreeing about the play’s musicality, Fraser likens it to Tennessee Williams. “As soon as you find the rhythm of the text, you know it.”
“And I would add that there’s also a lot of movement to it,” mentions Moore. “And a lot of business and hair washing, everybody is in constant motion, moving about the stage. Almost like musical numbers.”
“It’s like a Rube Goldberg machine,” says Dodge. “And it’s funny and heart-warming, but really, really funny.”
But unless care is taken, Steel Magnolias can melt into mawkish sentimentality. “That’s one of the reasons I had not been particularly drawn to it,” concedes Fraser. “And I should slap myself, because I don’t believe it’s mawkish at all. Instead, it’s very much about the sharing of human experience and how important that is.
“And these women are very, very strong women. To deal with situations that otherwise might be mawkish, might be sentimental, with intelligence and humor, it’s a much better way of dealing with sadness in the world.”
“I don’t want it to be a pity party,” says Dodge firmly. “I want to know what the problems are, I want to deal with them head-on and I want to make a big mess in that shop. I think that’s what’s happening – it’s messy, it’s warm and fuzzy every now and then, but it’s funnier than hell. And there’s anger and there’s despair. It’s a contemporary Tennessee Williams. It’s filled with beautiful language and it’s identifiable.”
Asked about her character, Moore says, “I see M’Lynn as somebody who takes on a lot. I think she’s very caring, I think she wants everybody to be OK. And if everybody else is OK, she’s OK.” She takes inspiration for her performance from her own mother and her aunt.
Fraser also has a personal connection to her role, since she was widowed many years ago. “Clairee is a recent widow. I’m not a recent widow, but I know that’s one of the defining characteristics of my life. I am having a lot of flashbacks to my early widowhood because of dealing with this play.” Besides, she says, “Clairee is such a wiseass and I tend to approach life a little bit that way.”
There are only a few performances left and not that many tickets available, but Dodge feels strongly that theater fans should make the effort to see this production of Steel Magnolias. Why? “To see a gorgeous ensemble tell a beautiful story in a new production, designed and built for this community,” she says. “It’s real life onstage, in a very theatrical way.”
STEEL MAGNOLIAS, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday, Nov. 11. Tickets from $60 and up. 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.