Women take the lead in GPT’s ‘Steel Magnolias’

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 10, 2016

 In “Steel Magnolias,” women in a small Southern town find friendship, laughter and support at their local beauty salon. The Grosse Pointe Theatre production includes, from left, Vonnie Miller, Maria Kelly and Sara Shook.

In “Steel Magnolias,” women in a small Southern town find friendship, laughter and support at their local beauty salon. The Grosse Pointe Theatre production includes, from left, Vonnie Miller, Maria Kelly and Sara Shook.

Photo by Dale Pegg, provided by Grosse Pointe Theatre


GROSSE POINTE FARMS — While the stage production of “Steel Magnolias” has an all-female cast, director Amy Ricker, of Sterling Heights, said the fact that almost every member of the Grosse Pointe Theatre crew also is a woman is purely accidental.

“It was not something I had planned,” she said. “It just happened to work (out) that way.”

But for a show about women relying on each other in good times and in bad, it’s somehow fitting, and Ricker said there has been a sense of “girl power” while working on this production.

Written by Robert Harling as a tribute to his late sister, “Steel Magnolias” is a moving comedy about a group of Southern women in a small town who bond at their local beauty shop in the 1980s. When one of the women — the young Shelby, modeled on Harling’s sister — decides to have a baby despite serious personal medical risks, the rest of the women rally around each other and offer support, honesty and needed doses of humor. The ladies share their ups and downs over the years and know they can always count on each other.

“It’s about these women and their bond,” said Ricker, who wanted to keep the set simple to allow the actresses to shine. “I didn’t want too much for the eyes. In this day and age, with technology (everywhere), we’re missing life.”

Unlike the 1989 film version — whose all-star cast included Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Dolly Parton and Shirley MacLaine — the stage production is limited to just the female characters, sans husbands and boyfriends.

Maria Kelly, of Royal Oak, plays Truvy, the owner of the beauty salon. Her character tries to keep the mood upbeat and she’s always making the other ladies laugh, Kelly said.

“The hair salon is where they go to get their hair done, but it’s also where they go to be with each other and support each other,” she said. “I think sometimes Hollywood plays up that competition between women. This is more about sisterhood. … It’s about relationships and friendships and how do you support people when things get tough.”

This is one of the few shows that GPT has ever done twice — Ricker said they staged a previous production circa 1992 — and female actresses from across metro Detroit were eager to audition for it.

Laura Ver Beek, of Grosse Pointe Park, plays Shelby’s mother, M’Lynn Eatenton, a character she described as very loving and nurturing toward her daughter, but also very private and “no nonsense.” 

“I think it is one of the most coveted female roles because of the dramatic content of the show,” she said. “It is emotionally challenging, which is fun if you like to act.”

Vonnie Miller, of St. Clair Shores, more frequently works behind the scenes as a director at local theaters — her last show with GPT was “Cats,” which she directed — but she’s making her onstage GPT debut here as Clairee Belcher, a widow and neighbor to all of the ladies. Miller said she’s been in three other productions of “Steel Magnolias,” and she played M’Lynn in those productions.

“I wanted a chance to play another role because I liked the show a lot,” Miller said.

She said the play demonstrates how longtime friends can be brutally honest with one another, and that doesn’t diminish the love they have for each other or the fact that they’d do anything for each other.

“It’s a beautifully written story,” Miller said. “(A story) that’s true and comes from the heart usually is.”

Like the characters in the play, some of the actresses have been dealing with their own personal challenges and aiding each other through difficult times. At only 21, Sara Shook, of Grosse Pointe Woods — who plays Shelby — is already a GPT veteran, but the young actress — who turns 22 this month — won’t have her biggest champion in the audience this time around. Her mother, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and courageously battled the odds to outlive previous medical prognoses, is now terminally ill and too sick to see her daughter in one last show.

“I have to do this for her,” said Shook, who said her mother was always supportive of her interest in the stage. “It’s been a dream role of mine. I saw (the movie) when I was really little. (Shelby) is so spunky. She is so sassy. It’s an honor to portray a real human who sacrificed so much for her one child. She’s so inspirational.”

Shook said the GPT cast and crew have rallied around each other in much the same way that the women in “Steel Magnolias” do.

“This show and this cast and this crew have been such a huge blessing,” she said.

The cast also includes Eileen White, of Warren, and Kristen Schultes, of Grosse Pointe Park.

“Steel Magnolias” will be performed at 8 p.m. March 10-12 and 17-19, and at 2 p.m. March 13, at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial, 32 Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Farms. Tickets cost $18. For tickets or more information, call (313) 881-4004 or visit www.gpt.org.