Steel Magnolias (play)

Steel Magnolias is a stage play by American writer Robert Harling, based on his experience with his sister's death. The play is a comedy-drama about the bond among a group of Southern women in northwest Louisiana.

Steel Magnolias
Written byRobert Harling
Date premiered1987
Place premieredWPA Theatre
New York City
Original languageEnglish
SettingTruvy's Beauty Spot, Northwest Louisiana, Chinquapin Parish

The title suggests the "female characters are as delicate as magnolias but as tough as steel". The magnolia specifically references a magnolia tree they are arguing about at the beginning.[1]


The play opens with discussion of Shelby's wedding day to her fiancé, Jackson, in the fictional northwestern Louisiana parish of Chinquapin at Truvy's in-home beauty parlour where the women regularly gather. It covers events over the next three years with Shelby's Type 1 diabetes and how the women interact at times with conflict but in the end remained friends: Shelby's decision to have a child despite the complication that could result from her condition, Clairee's friendship with the curmudgeon Ouiser; Annelle's transformation from a shy, anxious newcomer in town to a good-time girl then repentant revival-tent Christian; and Truvy's relationships with the men in her family. Although the main storyline involves Shelby, her mother M'Lynn, and Shelby's medical battles, the underlying group-friendship among all six women is prominent throughout the drama.[2]

Historical casting

Character 1987 WPA Theatre cast 1987 Lortel Theatre cast 1st National Tour cast 1989 West End cast 1989 Film cast 2005 Broadway cast
Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie Blanche Baker Betsy Aidem Tracy Shaffer Joely Richardson Julia Roberts Rebecca Gayheart
M'Lynn Eatenton Rosemary Prinz Barbara Rush Rosemary Harris Sally Field Christine Ebersole
Ouiser Boudreaux Mary Fogarty Carole Cook Jean Boht Shirley MacLaine Marsha Mason
Clairee Belcher Kate Wilkinson June Lockhart Stephanie Cole Olympia Dukakis Frances Sternhagen
Truvy Jones Margo Martindale Maggie Steed Dolly Parton Delta Burke
Annelle Dupuy-Desoto Constance Shulman Dawn Hopper Janine Duvitski Daryl Hannah Lily Rabe


The play is based on the family experience of the death of author Robert Harling's sister, Susan Harling-Robinson, in 1985 from diabetic complications after the birth of his namesake nephew and the failure of a family-member donated kidney. Following the death, a writer friend advised him to write it down to come to terms with the experience. He did but originally as a short story to give his nephew an understanding of the child's deceased mother. It eventually evolved in ten days to a play performed Off-Broadway before being adapted for the Steel Magnolias movie (1989).[3][4]

Harling, maybe based on his short, dry experience in the field of law ("not many laughs in Brown v. Board of Education"),[3] felt it important to include the way the characters used humor and lighthearted conversations to cope with the seriousness of the underlying situations. Harling wanted the audience to have a true representation of what his family endured during his sister's experience.

Production history

US productions

The play originally opened Off-Broadway (with one set and an all-female cast although the voice of a male DJ on the radio is intermittent during the play with all male "characters" referenced only through dialogue) at the WPA Theatre, in New York City, on March 28, 1987, with Pamela Berlin as director.

The production transferred to the Lucille Lortel Theatre on June 19, 1987, and closed on February 25, 1990 after 1,126 performances.[5] Replacements during the original Off-Broadway run included Anne Pitoniak, Bette Henritze, Rita Gardner, Maeve McGuire, and Stacy Ray.

A U.S. national tour was launched in 1989. Marion Ross joined the tour as Clairee late in the run.[6][7]

The play made its Broadway debut in 2005 and opened at the Lyceum Theatre, in previews starting on March 15, 2005, and officially opened April 4, and closed on July 31, 2005, after 23 previews and 136 performances, directed by Jason Moore.

Guthrie Theater did a production from October 26, 2019 to December 15, 2019 directed by Lisa Rothe.

UK productions

The premiere UK production opened in the West End in March 1989 at the Lyric Theatre; directed by Julia McKenzie.[8]

It returned to the West End for a limited engagement at the Westminster Theatre March 30-April 9, 1990, in a production mounted by Rose Bruford College.

A tour of the show opened at the Theatre Royal Bath on April 2, 2012, and was scheduled to play at ten theatres including the Richmond Theatre in London during an eleven-week run. Directed by David Gilmore.[9]

International productions

Ireland Staged at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin September 11–22 September 2012, Ben Barnes, director and on country-wide tour until October 19, 2012. The cast included Mischa Barton and Anne Charleston.[10][11][12][13][14]

France Coiffure et Confidences, the French-language adaptation by Didier Caron directed by Dominique Guillo, premiered in Paris at the Théâtre Michel in October 2014.[15] After three successful runs in Paris and multiple nationwide tours, its final performance, attended by Robert Harling, was filmed on June 12, 2017 and released on the French channel C8 a few months later.[16]


Thérèse (Truvy) - Marie-Hélène Lentini / Isabelle Ferron

Jeanne (M'Lynn) - Astrid Veillon / Élisabeth Vitali / Anne Richard

Magalie (Shelby) - Léa François

Agnès (Annelle) - Sandrine Le Berre

Claire (Clairee) - Isabelle Tanakil / Isabelle Ferron / Élisabeth Buffet

Odette (Ouiser) - Brigitte Faure

Japan Staged by the Haiyuza Theatre Company on November 14–25, 2007, in Tokyo, translated and directed by Hajime Mori. Cast: Mayuko Aoyama as Truvy, Kaoru Inoue as Annelle, Mayumi Katayam as Clairee, Midori Ando as Shelby, Atsuko Kawaguchi as M'Lynn and Minae as Ouiser.

Poland It premiered at the Aleksandra Wegierki Dramatic Theatre in Bialystok on April 14, 1992. Jean Korf was the director and the play was translated by Catherine Peebles and Andrzej Jakimiec. It was organized with help from the Embassy of the United States, Warsaw, especially the Cultural Attache, Bruce Byers.[18][19]

On March 29, 2017, the U.S. Embassy Warsaw held two English-language staged readings at Teatr Polski Arnold Szyfman Theatre in Warsaw as the capstone to its Women's History Month Programming. The production was directed by Deputy Press Attache Stephen E. Dreikorn and featured an all-embassy employee cast consisting of both American and Polish employees. Polish director and actor Andrzej Seweryn spoke before one of the performances and called the Embassy's production a "great initiative".[20][21]

Sweden Premiered November 16, 2008 at Vasateatern in Stockholm (with Robert Harling in attendance) titled "Blommor av Stål"; directed by Emma Bucht and translated by Klas Östergren and Edward af Sillén. The cast: Cecilia Nilsson as Truvy, Pernilla August as M'Lynn, Melinda Kinnaman as Shelby, Suzanne Reuter as Ouiser, Linda Ulvaeus as Annelle and Gunilla Nyroos as Clairee.

Screen adaptations


The play was adapted as a film in 1988 and released in 1989, with a screenplay also by Harling and directed by Herbert Ross. The film was able to expand the story of the play with additional background stories and characters. Julia Roberts was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Shelby.


  • Steel Magnolias sitcom

CBS-TV produced the two-hour Steel Magnolias sitcom pilot in April 1990 in Robert Harling's childhood hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana, he was screenwriter with his script being a continuation of the Steel Magnolias play and Steel Magnolias film (1989) following the death of Shelby. Thomas Schlamme directed; cast: Cindy Williams as M’Lynn, Sally Kirkland as Truvy, Elaine Stritch as Ouiser, Polly Bergen as Clairee, and Sheila McCarthy as Annelle. Ultimately, CBS passed on the series giving the pilot a single airing on August 17, 1990.[22]

2012 television film

The play was adapted as a television film in 2012 with an African-American cast set in fictional Chinquapin for a Lifetime TV production filmed in Atlanta, April 2012 (aired October 2012): directed by Kenny Leon and scripted by Sally Robinson.


  1. Hollinger, Karen. In The Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films, U of Minnesota Press, 1998, ISBN 0-8166-3177-8, p. 81
  2. Harling, Robert. Steel Magnolias. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc. 1988.
  3. "Robert Harling, Author of a Hit Comedy Based on a Family Tragedy". Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  4. "What's Up, Robert Harling? Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of Steel Magnolias, Kristin Chenoweth in a Soapdish Musical & More". Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  5. Gussow, Mel. Stage: 'Steel Magnolias,' A Louisiana Story" The New York Times, March 27, 1987
  6. ARKATOV, JANICE (August 8, 1989). "Tracy Shaffer Avoids the Sentiment of a Sugary Role". Retrieved January 15, 2018 via LA Times.
  7. "Role in 'Evening Star' has actress looking forward to more happy days Film: Marion Ross lands a part in a movie, and she's delighted. She thinks she may even win an Oscar". Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  8. Billington, Michael. "Over-much Southern comfort", Manchester Guardian Weekly, March 19, 1989, p. 26 (Theatre Section)
  9. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 21, 2012. Retrieved April 15, 2012.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. "The Gaiety Theatre - Irish Theatre in Dublin". Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  11. "Steel Magnolias at The Gaiety Theatre - Elevate PR". Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  12. "Steel Magnolias in Ireland at Royal Theatre and Event Centre 2012". Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  13. OC's Mischa 'Steels' the show Irish Herald. 11 July 2012
  14. Mischa Barton live on Moncrieff tomorrow. Newstalk. 11 July 2012
  15. "Coiffure et Confidences (2016) - Théâtre-Michel". Théâtre-Michel (in French). Retrieved September 25, 2018.
  16. "Coiffure & Confidences". Retrieved September 25, 2018.
  17. "Coiffure & Confidences". Retrieved September 25, 2018.
  18. accessed October 22, 2017
  19. accessed October 22, 2017
  20. "Women's History Month: U.S. Embassy Produced Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling - U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Poland". March 30, 2017. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  21. "magnolias_program.pdf" (PDF). Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  22. Victoria Advocate, April 18, 1990 p. 18
  24. "Queen Latifah Joins Lifetime's Remake of 'Steel Magnolias' - TVOvermind". March 20, 2012. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  25. Fisher, Luchina (October 5, 2012). "'Steel Magnolias' Blooms Again with Queen Latifah and All Black Cast". Retrieved January 15, 2018.
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