Not only was it the year that Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but it was also the birth of Women’s History Month.
After several years of the Congress-decreed Women’s History Week, 1987 saw the National Women’s History Project successfully petitioning Congress to make March Women’s History Month, a celebration that has continued ever since.
And it was also the year “Steel Magnolias” opened off-Broadway.
Written by lawyer-turned-actor Robert Harling, “Steel Magnolias” features an all-female cast and tells the story of a small group of Louisiana women who gather at the local beauty shop to share in life’s challenges and triumphs. The play turned into a success that attracted a famous audience — Harling wrote an article reminiscing about the buzz around well-knowns such as Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Lucille Ball and Bette Davis attending the show — and caught the eye of Hollywood, leading to the popular film adaptation in 1989 starring Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts (in her first Oscar-nominated role).
“I was probably around 17 (or) 18 when the movie came out, and I love the movie — still love it — … and I found that I related to it in some ways,” said actress DeLayne Bluth Dayton, who stars as M’Lynn in the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast of Hale Centre Theatre’s version of the show, which opens in the Jewel Box Theatre on March 27. “It's a fictional group of women who are just really grounded in reality.”
Harling wrote the story as a way to process the death of his sister, who died in 1985 at the age of 33 due to complications from Type 1 diabetes — Shelby, Julia Roberts’ character in the film, is based on his sister — and never imagined the story would see any sort of continued success.
"I thought somebody would find it in a drawer when they were throwing out my stuff after I was dead," Harling told Country Living in 2017. "I had no illusions or delusions of grandeur."
Yet the story caught on, an achievement Dayton and actress Elise Pearce, who stars as Shelby in HCT’s Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday cast, attribute to the relatability of the characters and the way Harling captured the essence of women.
"It is so well-written (as if) from the mouth of women that it shocked me to find out that it was written by a man … I said, 'No, that sounds just the way women would phrase it,’” Pearce said with a laugh. “… The dialogue and the way the women chat and talk to each other, you can tell that the playwright was comfortable in this woman's world.”
Dayton echoed Pearce’s sentiments, stating that the characters Harling created aren’t caricatures or cartoony but instead “witty, and intelligent and real characters.”
“What I love the most is the variance in levels of what a women looks like in this show,” she said. “There is not one category that you can stick a woman in, and that's what's so amazing about it.”
A major characteristic of “Steel Magnolias” is the camaraderie among the characters, and a similar friendship has developed among the cast.
“There's a lot of laughter, and then really there's tears, and there's hugs, and there's just really tons of support … ,” Pearce said. “There's such a big age difference between all the women in the cast, and we all come from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs and everything, but the storyline of the show and the supportiveness of everything that this show is about really brings the whole cast together, and it's been really great.”
"As we have gotten to know each other, I have found nothing but support and love, creativity, absolute camaraderie,” Dayton said. “They are intelligent women, they are smart, they are hardworking, and that's what I have loved. It's a small cast, everybody is there to work and to help each other out, and I think that bleeds into the story.”
New York Times writer Maya Salam says that the past year has been a “year of the woman.” From a record number of women holding seats in the House of Representatives, the ever-growing traction of the #MeToo movement and more, the world looks different today than it did 30 years ago when “Steel Magnolias” hit theaters or when Harling penned the piece, but both Pearce and Dayton say the show’s message hasn’t changed.1 comment on this story
"I think that maybe someone might say, 'Oh, we need it even more today.' We needed it always,” Dayton said. “It always needs to be there that women find whatever it is to help them feel empowered in whatever way that needs to be.”
If you go …
What: Hale Centre Theatre's "Steel Magnolias"
Where: Hale Centre Theatre's Jewel Box Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy
When: March 27-June 1, times vary
How much: $36-$48 for adults, $18-$24 for youths ages 5-17