Sept. 19--Robert Harling was 32, a not-too-successful actor who had never written a play in his life.
Then his sister died from complications of diabetes. Over the next several months, he cranked out a play -- a sentimental comedy -- about the end of her life.
That was a quarter-century ago. Now everyone knows Harling's first play, "Steel Magnolias."
The play has been popular in local and regional theaters since it first hit the stage in 1987. (It didn't hit Broadway until 2005, in a production that starred Delta Burke and Marsha Mason.)
It's the Broadway season opener for the Players Theatre. It runs Sept. 19-29. Players regular Bob Trisolini directs.
As often as the play is produced around the country, many more people know the story from the 1989 film version that starred Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, Julia Roberts and Olympia Dukakis.
The film -- also written by Harling -- makes some significant changes, but it's faithful to the story and the spirit of the play, Trisolini said.
"All the men are missing in the play," he said. "The play is just the six women, only the women, and it's all in one location, in the beauty shop. The women talk about the men, husbands and brothers, but in the movie you see them."
The film version opened the action up beyond the walls of Truvy's Beauty Parlor, the gathering place for the multi-generational group of six women in the small Louisiana town, and adds lots of extra characters.
But the story is the same both on screen and on stage. It unfolds around one of the younger women in the group who has diabetes. She has been warned by doctors not to get pregnant, because it could cause kidney damage. She eventually chooses to get pregnant anyway.
The title comes from the combination of delicacy and resilience that epitomizes the group of friends.
"It's a story of life and birth and death and mourning," Trisoloni said. "They're elegant Southern ladies, but they have stems of steel."
The cast for the Players' production features some long-time local theater regulars and some relative newcomers. Betty Robinson and Patti O'Berg acted in this area for many years -- O'Berg was the president of Theatreworks -- and have recently returned. Ellie Pattison and Players board chairman Leona Collesano have been steady presences on area stages and Amanda Heisey and Cullen White are making their debuts with the Players Theatre.
Details: Through Sept. 29, The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $25 adults, $12 children. Information: 941-365-2494, www.theplayers.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.
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