Ladies lead the way in Steel Magnolias

If you don’t recognize the women of Steel Magnolias, you probably aren’t from the American South.

Northeast State Theater brings Robert Harling’s bittersweet play of love, life, and loss to the stage this week. The play combines alternately hilarious and touching moments of life for those uniquely Southern women at a beauty parlor in fictional Chinquapin, Louisiana.

“A Southern woman is strong, independent, speaks her mind and has a strong streak of sassy,” said Hannah Duncan who portrays salon owner Truvy Jones. “Southerners possess a certain community because a lot of us have the big extended families and we are fiercely loyal to them.”

Duncan eagerly took on the iconic role made famous on film by Dolly Parton. She and her co-stars relished the opportunity to portray these women.

The cast (clockwise from top left) Hannah Duncan (Truvy) Caitlin Haltom (M'Lynn), Audrey Hammonds (Annelle), Meygan Proctor (Clairee), Shelby Minogue (Shelby), and Rachel Lawson (Ouiser).
The cast (clockwise from top left) Hannah Duncan (Truvy) Caitlin Haltom (M’Lynn), Audrey Hammonds (Annelle), Meygan Proctor (Clairee), Shelby Minogue (Shelby), and Rachel Lawson (Ouiser).

Caitlin Haltom takes on the role of M’Lynn Eatenton, a doting mother juggling marriage, children, and a career. She like many cast and crew members credited their moms, grandmas, and aunts as women of strength that helped shaped their lives.

“Once you get the lines down, you feel free to move naturally and interact with the other characters as you perform on stage,” said Haltom, a second-year Theater major. “The characters are the women you know – your mother, grandmother and they are living people you see every day.”

Playing the character of M’Lynn’s daughter Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie is Shelby Minogue. Her first name is no coincidence.

“I was named for this character because my mother and grandmother loved the movie, so it is pretty special to me,” said Minogue, a first-year Theater major at Northeast State. “They are the top two women of my life.”

Minogue takes on a challenging role of a young woman moving through illness, marriage, and motherhood. She researched the disease of diabetes to determine how low blood sugar affects a human slipping into a diabetic sleep. Like her fellow cast members Minogue sought to portray Shelby’s peaks and valleys as honestly as possible.

“The six characters are all so different in so many ways,” said Minogue. “I truly like how I got to have really close relationships with these girls.”

Truvy and Shelby in the beauty parlor.
Truvy and Shelby in the beauty parlor.

Northeast State alumna Rachel Lawson returns to the Northeast State stage in the role of Ouiser (Weez-er) Boudreaux. Lawson had not seen the play or film and preferred to embody the role without trying to replicate any performance.

“I wanted to create my own Ouiser without any outside pressure,” said Lawson, who earned an associate degree in Theater.

Rounding out the cast is Meygan Proctor portraying the widowed former first lady of Chinquapin Clairee Belcher and Audrey Hammonds playing Annelle Dupuy-Desoto.

NST technical director and program faculty member Brad McKenzie takes the helm as the production’s director and technical director. With the exception of lighting design – also being done by McKenzie – the entire production crew is made up of theater students.

“This is a bit of departure for me as a director, but I wanted to challenge myself to tell this story,” said McKenzie. “I am immensely proud of my students and their work on this play.”

Northeast State Theater has become well-known for the excellent sound and lighting effects realized by the technology available in the WRCPA Theater system. Taking up that responsibility for the Magnolias production is second-year student and Theater major Aaron Musselwhite. After performing on stage in I, Ebenezer and The Laramie Project, Musselwhite takes on his first crew role as sound designer.

“Brad and (Northeast State Theater Director Elizabeth) Sloan push you a lot to learn and perform and you get wonderful direction from them,” said Musselwhite. “Once I got involved I completely fell in love with theater.”

Rachel Lawson's character Ouiser goes through make-up with Russ Onks.
Rachel Lawson’s character Ouiser goes through make-up with Russ Onks.

Dressing these 80s’ ladies fell to the team of costume designer Ashley Guy and assistant designer Jessica Richardson. Guy and Richardson began sketching ideas for their designs last spring when the play was announced as the fall production. The two hit area thrift shops to find vintage clothing matching the time period.

“Each character was very different and each character was assigned a different color palette to reflect who they were,” said Richardson who also studies fashion design at East Tennessee State University.

An actor and theater student since high school, Guy performed on stage in the productions of I, Ebenezer, The Odyssey, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She also served as co-costume designer on Ebenezer.

“We did a lot of Google search to identify the fashion to get an idea of the outfits of the time,” said Guy. “There were a lot of shoulder pads in the Eighties.”

After creating stellar costume design for a host of past NST shows, Marty France took on the challenge of hair and make-up designer creating the big hair for the cast. The era’s style of big hair and flashy face paint provided a great canvas for France and co-designer Russ Onks.

“It has been a challenge with fashioning the 1980s style,” said France. “We drew inspiration from Bea Arthur and Delta Burke as two icons of that time.”

Scenic designer and stage shop manager Sommer Hughes built the set and created Truvy’s beauty shop using reclaimed salon chairs and furniture from retired beauticians. Her past work includes scenic design on The Laramie Project. Hughes began designing the Magnolias set and scenery last spring.

“I get into theater because it gives me the ability to make the things that are in my imagination real,” said Hughes. “It pushes me and challenges my abilities to make scenes come alive.”

Steel Magnolias is presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc., New York. Performance dates are Oct. 29-31 and Nov. 5-7 at 7:30 p.m. Two matinees will be performed on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 and free to Northeast State students who present valid student identification.

For information about tickets or how to purchase tickets call the Box Office at 423.354.5169 or e-mail at tcbrooks@northeaststate.edu.

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