“Steel Magnolias” runs Oct. 22-Nov. 9 at the Alliance Theatre.
JUDITH IVEY IS A TEXAS NATIVE, and although she’s lived in New York much longer than anywhere else, there’s no loosening her Southern apron strings.
“It’s just ingrained in you, isn’t it?” she says, laughing. “I have always strongly identified with the South. When I am dealing with someone who’s being cold and abrupt or indifferent, I can be pretty sure they’re not from the South. I think of Truvy’s line: ‘Smile! It increases your face value!’ ”
That’s just one of what Ivey calls the many “bumper-sticker lines” in Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling’s 1987 comic drama.
The six women who frequent Truvy’s little Louisiana beauty parlor “all speak in bumper stickers,” says Ivey, the Tony Award-winning actor who’s turned to directing in recent years. “The script is full of these quotable quotes. Bobby Harling has such a rare ability to turn a phrase and not only make an intelligent point but make you laugh at the same time. I think that’s something that’s uniquely Southern, too.”
A quick flip of the script proves her point:
“I really do love football, but it’s hard to parlay that into a reason to live.”
“If he was dumb enough to spend the rest of his life with me, then I’m dumb enough to marry him.”
“The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”
“Every time I sit down to read the play, I marvel at the power of its execution,” Ivey says. “The play would not work if you took one of the six characters out. No one is more important than the other and each one has a story to tell. Bobby Harling wrote about what he knew with great truth and sensitivity. He knew this world and these women, and he paid such beautiful attention to details.”
Ivey first directed Steel Magnolias it in 2005 at Houston’s Alley Theatre. Harling liked that production so much he asked her to direct two star-filled staged readings in 2012.
“I feel like there is something karmic about my association with Steel Magnolias,” Ivey says, “like I was supposed to meet Robert Harling and become closely involved with his story about women and community. I grew up in a small town, so I am attracted to his story where these people experience these comedies and tragedies together. This play embraces all aspects of life and humanity, so that means it is full of fun and full of pain. It still moves me to watch these women during the course of a year and a half.”
Harling, now 63, wrote the play to honor his younger sister, Susan, whose Type 1 diabetes led to her death in 1985. Writing helped him deal with his grief, and he wanted to spotlight that there was always humor amid the tears and tragedy.
Ultimately, Ivey sees Steel Magnolias as a love story honoring the strength women gain from their friendships with other women. She also likes the play’s emphasis on women accepting one another, warts and all.
Does she consider herself a “steel magnolia?”
“You know, I do,” she says. “I think that Southern women are different from Northern women in that we try to hold onto our femininity while also taking charge of the situation.”
And no place better to tend to the feminine side than a beauty shop, right?
“You are invited into what is a very specific place,” Ivey says. “It’s where you can let your hair down, both literally and figuratively. This is the safe haven where you share what’s going on in your life. It’s almost like therapy. You feel nurtured and protected. And there’s that unspoken rule: What is said in the beauty salon stays in the beauty salon.”