Gulfshore Playhouse' opens with perennially popular 'Steel Magnolias' – Naples Daily News

In the name of community and connections, three women are getting their hair done by two others who don’t know a foil from a frizz relaxer.
When “Steel Magnolias” at Gulfshore Playhouse opens in preview Nov. 10, however, the two neophytes will massage scalps like grads of the Aveda Institute. That’s thanks to coaching from Paula Fitzpatrick, a professional stylist from Robert of Philadelphia.
Kristen Coury, who is directing what is its season opener, brought in Fitzpatrick to help her actresses absorb authentic salon rituals of the play’s 1980s setting: shampooing, hair coloring, applying hot rollers. On a recent Saturday, the cast was getting schooled on the commandments of small-town Southern coiffures.
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The Robert Harling dram-com revolves around the loose sisterhood of a Louisiana beauty shop’s staff and customers. The play — unlike the larger scale Hollywood film version — takes place entirely in the home salon of Truvy Jones, the social catalyst for women of the town of Chinquapin. Through Truvy, they keep up with, and support, each other through life changes and misfortunes. All of them, in turn, support Truvy.
As her first nervous protege, Angie Janas, spritzed Beth Hylton with water at a salon sink fed by a manually pumped tank, Fitzpatrick doled out tips from her 40 years in the business.
“I put my hand on the person’s back because every customer wants to lean back (for the wash) and you don’t want them hitting the sink.” “Hood the hair with your towel so water doesn’t spray on the floor.” “If you get things wet, vamp it. Say, ‘Ooh, my towel! Where’s my towel?’ And grab another towel.”
“I appreciate this so much I feel like I have to call every good hairdresser I’ve ever had and apologize,” said Hylton, who plays M’Lynn, mother of the story’s tragic character, Shelby. She agrees with Fitzpatrick’s aside that her hair ends could use more symmetry: “I spilled hot oil on it from a candle,” she said sheepishly. 
“Most of this is completely new to me,” conceded Elizabeth Yancy, this production’s Shelby. “I’ve never had it colored. I’ve only had it cut.”
Karen Peakes, Gulfshore’s Truvy, faced an even steeper learning curve. “I actually hack my own hair,” she admitted. 
The salon rituals were familiar to Karen Talman, however. She plays the acerbic Oiser, whom “half o’ Chiquapin Parish’d give their eye teeth to take a whack at,” as another character summarizes. Talman, a Broadway veteran, was even a finalist for the role of Shelby in the original “Steel Magnolias.” 
“I still use hot rollers,” she declared. The fragrance of salon shampoos and masques and conditioners appealed to her: “I love the smell.”
She would not get any of the familiar fragrance of Aqua Net, the “it” hairspray of the 1980s that, in Super Hold formula, could turn the unruliest hair into a ceramic sculpture. Gulfshore Playhouse staff had emptied the prop cans and substituted pressurized air, out of kindness to actors’ sinuses and to audience members who don’t want to remember that much of the1980s.
“Steel Magnolias” poses a number of production challenges when it’s presented in a way as realistic as Coury wants it to be. Those sink sprayers dispense water on command, so someone backstage must keep the tanks pumped and ready.
Then there is the kind and amount of hair work to be done onstage every night.
“Are you going to use shampoo, or conditioner?” Fitzpatrick asked Coury. “Are you going to see the suds? Is that important?”
Likewise, Fitzpatrick pointed out that Hylton was going to need a bigger rollers for drying because she had thicker hair. “That’s nice to know,” Hylton said, beaming.
Hylton has been in “Steel Magnolias” before, and she knew this production would handle it with care: “This one is really working hard to make it land in the real world,” she said.
That’s exactly what Coury would want to hear. She wants “Steel Magnolias” to fully represent the life art is tasked to imitate. 
“This play is about community and connections, and that’s why it’s being done all over the country,” she said. The play was embraced all over Europe and in Australia as well, and became box office gold as a film with Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts and Sally Field in its major roles. 
It’s also a signal that live theater is unfettered again, she said. During the pandemic, when social distancing was required among actors as well as audiences, the stories were limited to two to three actors onstage, she recalled. 
“And very often a small cast means deeper dramas,” she said. Musicals — and one of those, “Camelot,” is scheduled, too — portended a return to normality. But it didn’t happen.
Gulfshore Playhouse had to pivot from one disaster to another when its original opening play this season, “26 Miles,” was cancelled because of Hurricane Ian. 
That has put “Steel Magnolias” in the opening spot. Still, there’s a bit of serendipity in the new order, leading off with a story of friendship and unity. 
“Actually,” Coury said, “it feels like it’s perfect.”
Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.
What: Drama-comedy produced by Gulfshore Playhouse
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesday matinees and 3 p.m. Sunday matinees Nov. 12-Dec. 4; previews 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Nov. 10-11
Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S, Naples
Tickets: $25-$80
To buy: gulfshoreplayhouse.org
Information: 239-261-7529