Cast of Steel Magnolias in First Rehearsal.
Live theater returns to the Quadracci Powerhouse at Milwaukee Rep in November with an endearing story – exactly the story we all need right now – of the necessity of friendship and community.
Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias runs November 9-December 5 and promises to bring a much-needed dose of joy and laughter. The 1989 film adaptation propelled this story into an instant classic, with an all-star cast of Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton and more. Although many of the issues addressed in the play evoke tears, the focus remains on the strength, grace and beauty of the female characters in dealing with adversity together. And, there are so many sassy and poignant one-liners that make the story memorable like: “A dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste” and “I’d rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”
Since the 2020 COVID pandemic changed nearly every aspect of daily life – including live performance – people may have realized how essential human connection really is to their wellbeing. Milwaukee Rep’s Artistic Producer and director of the production, Laura Braza, wants these lessons and tender moments to envelop audience members.
“You get to live these out these moments with these relatable characters in real time and in a real space,” said Braza. “It’s a different and unique experience, and I know everyone will get something out of it when they come to the theater.”
Almost exactly like the silver screen depiction, the story takes place in Chinquapin, Louisiana and revolves around Truvy’s beauty shop where six women of different ages and backgrounds laugh, gossip and support each other. Truvy’s beauty shop is literally and figuratively a place for these women to let their hair down and be who they are – a testament to what’s so special about what Truvy created in her space. It affirms the importance of non-familial relationships and having a place to gather outside the home.
Back in the Cream City
Braza grew up in the Milwaukee suburbs and went off to New York University to try her hand at an acting career. When an astute professor guided her toward directing, she found success and was even able to open and run her own theater company in New York City for about 10 years before returning to her hometown.
I asked Braza what it feels like to be directing her first production on Milwaukee Rep’s main stage – the Quadracci Powerhouse, after directing numerous productions in the Stiemke Studio and Stackner Cabaret including Grounded, Songs for Nobodies, Two Pianos Four Hands and Souvenir. “It’s so scary and so fun,” she gushed. “It’s really special to me because I grew up going to Milwaukee Rep and it means something to me to be a part of this tradition.” Braza is even more thrilled to make her debut with such a joyful, life-affirming story. “It’s exciting to do a story that people are familiar with, but it’s hard because there are expectations,” she admits.
As the full-time Artistic Producer, she is getting into a little bit of everything. “I have not had two days that are the same. But, ultimately, the job of the producer is to make space to support the work of the artistic team as much as possible. Sometimes that means watching tech and sometimes it’s dealing with spreadsheets and budgets, but it’s always connecting and communicating.
A story about women, brought to you by women
Braza is also excited and proud to be working with a full female creative team – costumes, set, lighting and sound. It is rare, but it was very important to Braza because it’s a story about women and she wanted it to be told by women.
The production process began about a year ago when they assembled the design team to determine what the set would look like. Because of the continuing pandemic, all auditions had to be held via video and zoom calls. Casting started in August with the help of Rep alum and Steppenwolf casting director JC Clementz. “COVID presented a whole new set of challenges, but people have so much energy to get back to work that the barriers didn’t seem so exhausting,” said Braza. The team was able to do a lot of initial work with the script before they get up on stage. “It’s really about making the story specific to the actors on the stage and getting to the heart of it,” said Braza.
But just because it’s produced by women, Braza insists it’s a comedy for everyone. The characters are so recognizable – everyone has a mother, sister or aunt reminiscent of M’Lynn, Shelby or Anelle. So, I had to know Braza’s favorite character. She said, “Well, I love all of the characters, but I have a truly bad-ass grandma who is no-nonsense, direct and funny. She is a huge influence in my life and we have a very close relationship.” Sounds like Ouiser!
Masks will be required at all Rep performances and guests will have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. For more information about tickets and policies, visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com/Steel
Jenna Kashou is a regular contributor to MKE Lifestyle, Milwaukee Magazine and more. She is the author of the second edition of "100 Things to Do in Milwaukee Before You Die" and the forthcoming "Scavenger Hunt MKE" from Reedy Press. She was also selected as the Pfister Hotel's fifth writer in residence and has worked for several of Milwaukee’s arts organizations. Connect with her on Instagram (@Explore_the_414) and Facebook.com/JennaLKashou.