BY SANDY STAGGS
When Spartanburg Little Theatre unveiled its programming line-up last March at its annual Season Reveal gala, the audience proved they knew the lines from Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias” just as well as the six ladies who were reading a scene from their scripts.
The play turned 30 last year and the iconic 1989 film about six women in deep Louisiana turns 29 this year. And SLT is putting on the final glossy touches on its live production opening this Friday. Anticipation is high and sales have been so brisk that opening weekend is indeed sold out and an extra show has been added on Thursday, March 15.
Directed by Tim Baxter-Ferguson (“Xanadu” and “Avenue Q”), the cast includes Lori Bell Guthrie as bouncy beauty shop owner Truvy (Dolly Parton in the film); Candace Stimpson as M’Lynn (Sally Field); Caroline Bosworth as the jilted girl from the other side of the tracks Annelle (Darryl Hannah); Valerie Barnett as former first lady of the parish Clairee (Olympia Dukakis); Teresa Hough as the cranky Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine); and in her SLT debut, Christiana Reübert as M’Lynn’s beautiful daughter and a bride-to-be Shelby, the role embodied by Julia Roberts and based on the playwright’s own sister.
The popular film version, as Reübert tells Carolina Curtain Call, is the one thing the director cautioned his leading ladies about. “He didn’t want us to watch the film until after we are done with the show, because he didn’t want the versions they do to influence our performances.”
“You want it to be honest and authentic and feel like you’re performing something that has already been done before.” But, of course, all six actors, being bonafide Southern Belles, had already seen the film: “It’s almost ingrained in your brain, but we all surged past that,” she added.
Reübert was initially introduced to “Steel Magnolias” only a couple years ago. “It’s a great film, but I like the play better, mainly because there are no men in the play,” Reübert said.
Harling, who also wrote the screenplay, added the male characters that are spoken about in the play, as well as many more locations.
“It’s more personal when the action is always in the salon. “Truvy’s is a safe haven for the women to discuss life’s problems,” she said.
In addition, playing the part of Shelby, who is a diabetic and dies of renal failure in the play, definitely resonates with Reübert more than most actors.
Reübert was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2009 when she was 16 years old. So, obviously, “Steel Magnolia” “hits home” for her.
“It was a shock” she said, noting that she is the only member of her family with this chronic disease that results from the pancreas producing too much or too little insulin. And though Type 1 is called juvenile diabetes and most often occurs in younger children, it can strike in people well into their 20s and even 30s.
However, Reübert, who wears a portable insulin pump, didn’t mention it during the audition process for “Steel Magnolias.” “Partially, I didn’t want that to be some weird determining factor. In my head, I just felt more connected with the character.”
And when she did mention her condition at the cast’s first read-through, her mates were in awe.
“I think about it sometimes. I think what it is like to be just normal. You just forget about how it was before you were diagnosed with a chronic illness,” Reübert ruminates. I grew up a little faster and it changed my perspective on life and certain things.”
And just like Shelby, who has a very fragile case of diabetes, Reübert doesn’t let the illness control her life.
“Even though Shelby does lose her battle with diabetes, she knows what she wants. She is willing to do whatever it takes to have ’30 minutes of wonderful” instead of “a lifetime of nothing special.’ ”
“Shelby’s is just one kind of diabetes … I don’t think it is really the norm. It can vary from individual to individual with the severity,”
And medicine has progressed immensely since Harling’s sister died not long after giving birth and a kidney transplant, Reübert notes.
“I know that these days you can go to a genetic counselor to get an idea of passing that particular gene that causes diabetes and how it would affect the pregnancy,” she adds.
In addition to Shelby, all of the characters in this play are “steel magnolias,” Reübert says.
Magnolias are delicate flowers, but these women exhibit both inside and outside a “steely” toughness, a persistent perseverance, she says.
About her castmates, Reübert describes their simpatico as “a cool dynamic you don’t get with other shows. It’s a very small cast too and it has started to feel like a small family.”
And despite her charcter’s traumatic passing in the play, Reübert re-assures audiences there is a lot of laughter in “Steel Magnolias.” “I don’t feel anyone is going to leave super sad.”
“Steel Magnolias” runs March 9-18 at the Chapman Cultural Center, 200 East Saint John St.in Spartanburg. For tickets and information, call (864) 542-2787 or visit http://www.chapmanculturalcenter.org.