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It may seem idealistic to imagine a space in which women of three generations of wisdom and experience can come together and be their authentic selves. But that is what’s been happening at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse, as an all-women cast prepares to perform the iconic Steel Magnolias.
Looking the part
The story of Steel Magnolias is a familiar one to many. You may have seen the play performed on stage, and maybe you’ve seen the 1989 movie starring Julia Roberts, Sally Fields, and Dolly Parton. Maybe you can close your eyes and evoke the memory of a big-haired Dolly demonstrating the southern hospitality of Truvy’s beauty salon in a small town in Louisiana. For Act II’s production of Steel Magnolias, Mary Carpenter will be portraying the role of Truvy. “I'm thrilled to be playing this part,” she told me. “It's not a part that would come to people’s minds if they were to see my photo or if they know me, but there’s so much freedom in doing something outside of my standard wheelhouse.”
The role has stretched Carpenter in beautiful, and unexpected, ways. “Even just in the first scene, which is huge—over 20 pages—there's so much to establish. The audience is learning about all the characters, and Truvy's onstage from the beginning. She’s doing all these things. She’s running her beauty shop, and she wants to make sure everybody feels cared for and comfortable and that they're at ease as they're preparing for this wedding. To do all of that as an actor, and to do it all while putting someone’s hair into an updo, I love the challenge of that.”
Carpenter shared that working with supportive women has driven the entire cast to move beyond their existing boundaries as actors, while also tapping into the limitless reservoirs of their actual life experiences.
For instance, Sabrina Profitt, who will be inhabiting the role of M’Lynn, told me that her character has a deeply personal significance. Not only does Steel Magnolias remind her of her mother, who passed away four years ago, but Profitt’s 17-year-old daughter was also cast in her high school’s production of the play last year. And, like her mother, she performed the role of M’Lynn.
“I get to bring my full self to work every day,” Profitt told me. “I don't have to leave parts of myself at home. And everybody involved in this piece is doing the same. And so, it's just a really precious, vulnerable, triumphant space.”
The root of the flower
For Jenna Kuerzi, the process of excavating and portraying her character has been at once vulnerable and triumphant. After being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes several years ago, Kuerzi is thrilled to have the opportunity to realistically and compassionately portray a character with Type 1 Diabetes. Although she describes herself as “more Philly grunge than blush and bashful,” she’s been able to access Shelby’s whimsy in a way that is grounded and real.
“I think it’s really interesting to subvert people's ideas of what's been presented to them in movies or pop culture, and our director Megan Bellwoar is super collaborative, and she’s interested in our input. Before we do anything, we sit down and she asks questions about our personal lives that may color the scene,” Kuerzi said.
Kuerzi, Profitt, and Carpenter will be joined by actors Kelsey Hébert (Annelle), Carolyn Nelson (Clairee), and Penelope Reed (Ouiser) as they embark on a depiction of Southern womanhood that hopes to have audience members laughing, crying, and falling in love with their characters.
As Profitt put it: “We try as best we can to live truthfully in imaginary circumstances. And, if we do that to the best of our abilities, then what you as an audience member choose to take away, or what resonates, is all dependent upon what you are bringing to the theater, too. That's what I love about theater. The play exists above the stage and the audience, somewhere in the middle distance above all of our heads. The actors and the audience are all bringing ourselves to the moment, and what is created there is freshly minted every night. That's pretty fantastic.”
What, When, Where
Steel Magnolias. By Robert Harling, directed by Megan Bellwoar. $15-$40. January 31 through February 26, 2023, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, Ambler. (215) 654-0200 or act2.org.
Masks and proof of vaccination are no longer required at Act II Playhouse.
The theater is wheelchair-accessible.
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