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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

Community Players’ centennial season opens with a heartwarming production of ‘Steel Magnolias’

Six women gather in a 1980s beauty salon with fashion posters hung on turquoise walls. Two of the women sit at a manicure table while the others stand around them in conversation.
Community Players Theatre
From left, Lynne Christian, Lynda Rettick, Katie Potts, Diane Walker, Lorraine Bouchard and Mena Williams are the cast of "Steel Magnolias" at Bloomington's Community Players Theatre, where the production runs for two weekends only.

Community Players Theatre kicked off its 100th season Thursday with a new production of Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias.”

If reading the title stirs up memories of Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine, then you are in for a treat with local performers Lynne Christian, Diane Walker and Lorraine Bouchard tackling the same witty, heartfelt roles as those iconic actors.

"Steel Magnolias" runs two weekends through Sept. 11 at Community Players Theatre in Bloomington.

By day, Penny Wilson is a busy Realtor hustling in Bloomington’s hot real estate market. But at night, she’s a theater director.

Wilson spoke with WGLT just before the curtain went up on Thursday.

“I’ve been out here since about '89,” Wilson said, marking Community Players’ 1989 Christmas pageant called “Holiday on Robinhood Lane” as her first production with the company. Favorite shows since then include “Of Mice and Men” in 2014, and “Camelot” in 2004.

Since that first Christmas pageant, Wilson has come back again and again, and not just as a director — she’s also acted, designed costumes, done wigs and hair, and painted sets.

“I think we put on great productions and that draws the public in,” she said.

The 1989 film adaptation of “Steel Magnolias” put Julia Roberts on the map, earning the young actress her first Oscar and Golden Globe for her performance as Shelby.

But the stage production came before the movie. Penned two years earlier, “Steel Magnolias” originally opened off Broadway at the WPA Theatre. Jason Moore directed the Broadway version that opened in 2005 at the Lyceum Theatre and ran for more than 150 performances.

The play is notably different from the film.

“It stays in the beauty salon,” said Wilson, adding the six women central to the plot are the only performers on stage. “But every single line you hear will be familiar.”

“Steel Magnolias”' late-1980s vintage comes across in the sets and costumes, as does its fictional location in a Louisiana parish outside Shreveport. But Wilson said the themes explored in the play resonate with today’s audiences.

Shelby is a new bride and mother who dies of complications from diabetes. The plot is based on the true story of Harling’s sister, Susan.

“This about friendship and what we do in times of joy, and times of sadness and heartache,” Wilson said.

Key to those friendships is the inter-generational experiences of the six women, who seem to have little in common with one another apart from frequenting their neighborhood salon.

Likewise, each Community Players cast member is a different age and brought various levels of experience to the rehearsal process.

“We have veteran actors, we have actors that have done a few shows — we have an actress that has done no shows prior to this,” Wilson said. “They bonded early on and have worked so hard... I’m so pleased with what they’re going to present.”

Steel Magnolias runs Sept. 2-4 and 9-11 at the Community Players Theatre, 201 Robinhood Lane, in Bloomington. Tickets are $9-$17 at communityplayers.org.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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