The split-level tone of the proceedings is established by the proprietress of the place who readily confesses, "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion." Somewhat settled in its archetypal ways, it celebrates Southern sisterhood through four scenes and seasons, following the ups and at least one major down in the lives of six women who rendezvous around the hairdryers every Saturday morning over a three-year period in the late '80s in a fictional burg not at all unlike Harling's own Natchitoches.
Harling was on hand to welcome its arrival (his belated Broadway debut, by the by). With director Jason (Avenue Q) Moore, he personally delivered the roses at the curtain call to six ladies who had 'em coming (to name Names, alphabetically: Delta Burke, Christine Ebersole, Rebecca Gayheart, Marsha Mason, Lily Rabe and Frances Sternhagen). Then, he delivered more laughter-through-tears to an audience already dabbing its eyes.
"Everything you have seen is true—the names have been changed to protect me," he told the first-nighters. "Twenty years ago, I lost my sister to complications from diabetes. Her name was Susan. She was an extraordinary woman. She was my best friend." In dealing with this loss—which was aggravated by the fact she left a two-year-old son, Robert, "who would never know how wonderful his mother was"—he took up writing for the first time, and, with a little beginner's luck, Steel Magnolias fell into place. The characters played by Gayheart and Ebersole are specifically patterned on his sister and his mother, Margaret (who, with her husband, Bob, and son, John, was in beamingly in attendance); the other characters were affectionate amalgams of the small-town biddies of his youth.
"Susan had a dream to take care of her baby and everybody she loved. The theatre did that. Her dream came true. I had a mission to fill . . . so one person would hear a story. There's a very fine young man in the audience tonight named Robert. He's my nephew."
There was a massive mascara repair after that one, then everybody adjourned to Tavern on the Green where collard greens had been added to the menu and the six stars arranged themselves, photo-op fashion, around the sweet centerpiece—a blood-red velvet armadillo cake with gray icing (a regional delicacy alluded to in the play). "I have no idea how they made the gray icing, but it came out very good," lead producer Roy Gabay raved. The glitter-and-shine at Tavern jumped a kilowatt or two with the likes of Chris Noth, Kathryn Rossetter, Alex Kinney, Edward Hibbert, Martha Plimpton, hiphop impresario Russell Simpson and diva missus Kimora Lee Simmons, Billy Stritch, Rue McClanahan and Joel Vig, Kyan ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy") Douglas, New Jersey's ex-governor James McGreevey, London TV's Graham Norton, Amanda Peet, Michael Arden, Katie Holmes and Donna Hanover.
The highly syndicated Liz Smith, who really does jot down thoughts for her column at intermission, didn't make it up to the tavern in Central Park, but several Broadway lights enjoying their Monday off at Steel Magnolias were around adding to the after-party glow.
Sarah Paulson, out of her Glass Menagerie for the evening, used elaborate "Allah, be praised" hand-wavings to greet Rabe, who returned that salute. Both might be vying in a few weeks for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play—as, for that matter, might the other young Broadway debutante among the Magnolias, Rebecca Gayheart.
Notice the subdued, subtle way that Gayheart plays her third scene as the surrogate Susan Harling. "I did research on dialysis," the actress said. "You do your homework and just hope someone will pick up on it. The big thing everyone told me was that they were just fatigued—no energy because it really takes a lot out of you, having your blood purified three times a week. The longer you've done it, the more toll it takes on your body."
Rabe, who plays Truvy's ever-evolving assistant, betrays her creative gene pool: Dad is playwright David Rabe; Mom is actress Jill Clayburgh, and the apple hasn't fallen very far from the tree. "It's a privilege to have a character who changes so much," she admitted. "I love everything about her. It's a wonderful part to have because of the transformation I get to go through in the four scenes—not only in her emotional and spiritual life but also in the four wigs and costumes that I have to put on during the show."
Rabe the writer and doting father appeared blissed out after his seventh viewing of his working daughter. "It's a very unusual experience," he allowed. "A couple of days ago, I was really thrilled. Now, I'm numb. She went to Northwestern and is very well trained."
As for his Hurlyburly, which got a sold-out revival by The New Group, it will go into extra innings at 37 Arts on April 11, opening April 20 with its "indie cast" (Ethan Hawke, Parker Posey, Josh Hamilton, Bobby Cannavele, Catherine Kellner, et al). At the moment, Rabe is between works: "I have plays written but nothing in the wings."
Burke's opening-night guest was her mother, Jean, and the mother-daughter heartstrings weren't lost on her. "She didn't think I should go into acting—'You gotta watch those people'—but she always supported me, especially when she realized how serious I was."
She admitted she was having a ball playing Truvy. "She can be a little over the top sometimes, but basically I bring her down to earth." Her working model adorns the Playbill—a feisty country woman cutting up under the hairdryer: Liz Landrum, one of the women who inspired the role of Truvy and a true Truvy type. She ran a beauty salon in backwoods Louisiana at the time and is now in her 90s, a late-blooming theatre logo. The show's ad agency, when it was doing research for art ideas, came across Lee Crum's picture of her in Life magazine and thought it perfectly summarized the spirit of the show.
Another Truvy roaming the Tavern was the Off-Broadway original, Margo Martindale, who parlayed that part into a lucrative career. Her most recent achievement was in the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 2004, Million Dollar Baby; she played Hilary Swank's trailer-trash mom and did that difficult feat in two days of filming. Before that, she was a Tony-nominated Big Mama in the last Broadway go-around of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She was seated with Dana Ivey, who just did Big Mama at the Kennedy Center celebration of Tennessee Williams. Before that, she was a much-praised Mrs. Malaprop in Lincoln Center's The Rivals. The two have been friends, co-stars and Upper West Side neighbors for years, and pretty soon they'll be back on stage "Together Again!"
"We did Jack Heffner's Patio Porch in 1977 at the Ollapadrina Shopping Center in Dallas, TX," crowed Ivey. "Before that, we played twins," offered Martindale. "We did not play twins. We played sisters," Ivey corrected. "We. Played. Twins," Martindale insisted. Before the Big Mamas could break into "My Sister!"-"My Twin!" debate, Tim Curry butted in fortuitously from a neighboring table and shmoozed them into a soothing truce. It was his night away from Spamalot, and he fared well without his faithful "Patsy," servicing his table with four drinks in his two hands. "They're all for me," he cracked.
Mason does the most unexpected turn in the cast, The Goodbye Girl-gone grump. "I'm playing very much against type," she said. "I had to convince them. That was the role I wanted. I auditioned and campaigned for it and I'm glad I did. I had a great time tonight."
But the real star of the night was Robert Robinson, a 22-year-old theatre major at the University of Louisiana—i.e., The Nephew for whom the show was written and done on Broadway. "I've seen college productions, but tonight was amazing," he said. "I never saw it done with sliding doors. That was so smart. I felt I was back home in Natchitoches, like a fly on the wall, looking at the ladies in the beauty shop. There was such detail."
And, yes, he cried—like most of the audience. "I knew it was okay to cry when I hear all the sniffles in the audience. I said, 'All right, all right, let it go.' I was just an audience member, and it's a great story." He broke into a smile. "You know, I'm very partial to it."