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'Steel Magnolias' emphasizes strength through difficult times

The cast from "Steel Magnolias" is shown in a scene in Truvy's Beauty Shop. From left in front are Julie Kaiser as Annelle, Julie Quanrud as Truvy, Vicki Wangberg as M'Lynn and Emily Quanrud as Shelby. In the background, Sarah Einerson, left, as Ouiser and Vicki Stenerson as Clairee look on. The play will open Thursday, Jan. 20, with performances until the Sunday, Jan. 23, matinee, at the Wild Rose Theater. Pioneer Photo/Patt Rall

The more we think we are different, the more obvious it is that we much more alike.

Take, for instance, the story of five women who have known each other for so long that they went to school together, were bridesmaids in each other's weddings, brought hotdishes to help out in times of happiness or stress and tolerated the behavior of an errant spouse out of loyalty to each other.

Does this story sound familiar to a majority of the women who live in this town and other small towns throughout this county? I would bet that it does, for that is what builds community - the concern that we have for each other in good times and bad.

All this is a prelude to the story of women who support and love their friend and her diabetic daughter; accept a newcomer with a dubious background to their midst; go forward after a unwelcome and surprise role of widow is thrust upon one of them; and come out on the other side stronger than before.

This group of friends meets regularly at Truvy's beauty salon to capture momentous moments in their lives, get a weekly shampoo, set and manicure, and gossip about their locale, a small parish in Louisiana.

This coming week, we will have the chance to listen to their soft southern accents with the opening of "Steel Magnolias" by Robert Harling. A Saarens Production, the play will begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 20-22, and at 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 23, at the Wild Rose Theater, 501 Bemidji Ave. N. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors (60 and older) and $5 for students and children. Reservations can be made by calling 556-1777 and tickets will be available at the door at each performance.

The cast for this play has been anticipating performing in it for the past two years and, during that time, have come together to form a repertory company. All of the individual actors, well known to Bemidji audiences, including the youngest, Emily Quandrud, have honed their acting skills with many roles in former Bemidji Community Theater productions.

Vicki Wangberg relates back to her own experiences as a mother with children who have health crises as a way for her to relate to the part of the mother M'Lynn.

"Doing the last scene is emotionally wrenching. It is every time like the first time," said Wangberg. "I have two children with special needs, and one of them we almost lost when he was 6 months old and had meningitis. He was flown out of here (Bemidji), and my husband and I could not go on the helicopter with him. Our other son has Down syndrome, and a couple of times he was very near death. So, as a mother, I can draw on those experiences."

Wangberg said she sees M'Lynn as a very strong woman, who is very controlled because of her job is as a counselor at a mental guidance center. M'Lynn has to hold the secrets of many people in town. In the period of time the play covers of the young life of her daughter Shelby who suffers from Type I diabetes, M'Lynn's competence to handle situations is demonstrated time and again. Shelby wants to live her life her way and does not take the advice of her mother and the doctors who warn about becoming a mother. Shelby is a nurse who cares for young children and she longs to fill that empty spot in her heart. We meet Shelby on her wedding day at the salon when she chatters on about her signature color, pink, and suddenly has a reaction to an earlier dose of insulin. M'Lynn takes charge and knows what to do to bring her daughter back from the brink. The play revolves around these two women and the comfort zones that their friends create for them.

Newcomer Annelle (Julie Kaiser) is the character the author uses to explain the vagaries of living with diabetes. Annelle's timid personality and naïveté are also a foil for the numerous moments of levity throughout the play. Ouiser (Sarah Einerson) is an eccentric widow who is in constant battle with M'Lynn's husband. She is irascible and mostly unpleasant but has the proverbial heart of gold because she uses her money to buy art and fund projects around town. Clairee as played by Vicki Stenerson is the widow of the former mayor, and she is full of fun and adventure. Her barbs toward Ouiser provide many chuckles.

The owner of the salon, Truvy, (Julie Quanrud) is a brash, red-haired, fount of down-home wisdom. The action takes place in her salon, which is a replica of a similar establishment in the director's home town of Grand Forks, N.D. Steve Saari bought most of the prop pieces for the set, which was built by Dwayne Johnson, from a woman who was retiring from the beauty parlor business. The dryer works and the different stations are authentic. The cast was taught how to look and work as beauticians by Tracy McGriff of the Hair Garage. The wigs, which are used extensively during the production, are styled by McGriff. Cheryl Winnett, a southern woman herself, has assembled all the collectibles that one expects to find in a salon housed in the attached garage to Truvy's house.

All of the players said the experience of working with each other in this play has made them stronger personally and has given them a camaraderie that makes ensemble work so fulfilling.

The play will make audiences cry or laugh until they cry, but the tears will be cleansing for the lesson of "what does not kill you, makes you stronger" comes full force at the end.