Best Bets: Kent County Theatre Guild’s ‘Steel Magnolias’ puts women in spotlight

From left, Shelby Colatrella (Shelby), Erin Rich (Truvy), Terri Thompson (Miss Clairee), Patti Gatto (Ouiser), Cameron Catalino (Annelle) and Chris Polo (M’Lynn) make up the cast of “Steel Magnolias,” which starts tonight under the direction of Becky Craft. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

A story of love and loss and most of all, friendship, will be played out at the Kent County Theatre Guild’s Patchwork Playhouse starting Friday night.

“Steel Magnolias,” by writer Robert Harling, based on his experience with his sister’s struggle with diabetes, chronicles the bond among a group of Southern women in northwest Louisiana with a mix of laughs and tears.

Unlike the 1989 star-studded movie, which was based on the play, the entire show is set in wise-cracking Truvy’s beauty salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana, where all the ladies who are “anybody” come to have their hair done.

The characters also include Annelle (who is not sure whether or not she is still married), an eccentric millionaire, Miss Clairee, who has a raging sweet tooth; and the local social leader, M’Lynn, whose daughter, Shelby, is about to marry a “good ole boy.”

The play later moves toward tragedy when, in the second act, the spunky Shelby (who is a diabetic) risks pregnancy.

With a cast made up of veteran performers and young actors new to the Dover stage, the six women who make up the entire cast say they have bonded together much like their fictional counterparts.

“It’s been really fun working with all of these women,” said longtime Guild member Patti Gatto, who plays the rich curmudgeon Ouiser.

“And they are all so talented. Shelby (Colatrella) who plays Shelby in the show is just terrific. And Erin Rich, who plays Truvy, is wonderful. I want to lock her in the basement and have her for every show.”

Although a veteran actor who has worked with Milford’s Second Street Players and Stanton’s 4th Wall Players, this is Ms. Rich’s first show with Kent County Theatre Guild. She is enjoying the experience immensely.

“There’s not a weak link in this cast,” she said.

Cameron Catalino as Annelle, standing, and Erin Rich as Truvy perform in Kent County Theatre Guild’s “Steel Magnolias.”

Ms. Rich works with director Becky Craft at Delaware Technical Community College, who told Ms. Rich that was she was doing the show.

“And I thought that might be fun. All-female cast, female director. Interesting, complex women’s roles rather than bimbos,” she said.

Another cast member new to Kent County Theatre Guild is Cameron Catalino, who plays newcomer to the town, Annelle, who gets a job as a hairdresser in Truvy’s Beauty Shop.

She has done shows at the Everett Theater in Middletown and earlier in high school and the Children’s Theatre.

She finds a lot of similarities between herself and her character.

“I relate a lot to Annelle. I’m new to all of this. She’s new to the area. and her challenges. I came in not knowing anybody. She came in not knowing anybody. I came into a new place not knowing how open I can be with (the cast) but then just became best friends with them.

“I was so nervous at the start of (rehearsals). But as we kept doing it, we all just got so close. We just bonded. This group is so talented and it’s just a real pleasure getting to work with them,” she said.

The cast also includes Chris Polo, as M’Lynn, and Terri Thompson, as Miss Clairee.

Perhaps due to the popularity of the movie, 22 women tried out for the show, which is an extremely large group for a Guild audition.

We could have more but I locked the front door,” Ms. Gatto joked.

“I honestly could have cast the show three times based on the quality of the people we had to audition,” Ms. Craft said.

Because this is such a familiar story to most people who have seen the film, cast members have tried to bring their own personalities to the roles made famous by Dolly Parton, Sally Field and Julia Roberts.

Ms. Gatto said they also had a certain amount of responsibility.

“Because it’s based on a true story. It was (the writer’s) way of dealing with his sister Susan’s death and also as a way for his nephew to have a memory of his mother,” she said.

rom left, Erin Rich (Truvy), Shelby Colatrella (Shelby), Chris Polo (M’Lynn) and Cameron Catalino (Annelle) converse in Truvy’s Beauty Shop during a scene from the show.

“As you go on the internet, you see images of other theater groups doing the show and see pictures of these characters with big hair and the typical Southern things that aren’t true.

“But if you just remember that they were real women and if you play them that way, they just become very natural because it’s such a well-written play and it was such a natural show to do. And, like every play, you let the audience tell you what’s funny and what’s not.”

For Ms. Craft, this is a full circle moment. The last time the Guild put on the show was in 1992 when she played M’Lynn and Ms. Polo, who now plays the role, directed her.

“The cool thing is when you work with people who directed you, you have this fear that they are going to self-direct you and she hasn’t done this. She has been a dream,” Ms. Craft said.

“And I didn’t realize it was actually her dream to do this role. And when I gave her the role, she said ‘Thank you very much because it’s always been a dream of mine to do this.’”

And for a director to have a show that may be familiar to most, that’s OK with her.

“It sufficiently different that it’s not that much of a worry but if people feel compelled to come because they know the show, I’m OK with that,” she said.

“They are going to be surprised by the ending and a couple of things along those lines. But for the most part, they know what they are doing and they are coming for that purpose.”

“Steel Magnolias” is on stage for three weekends at the Patchwork Playhouse in Dover.

Ms. Craft said the show has additional meaning for her.

“Over the last couple of years, a couple of people who are very special in my life have been diagnosed with or passed away as a result of complications with (Type 1 diabetes),” she said.

“My very, very best friend died in February of 2014. She was just a force to be reckoned with, and a theater geek and just an amazing person. She had a kidney transplant that worked but then ended up passing away of a heart attack because the heart is majorly affected by diabetes.”

With this show, the Kent County Theatre Guild returns to a three-weekend, seven-performance schedule. For the past couple of years, the shows were performed for just two weekends and five times.

“We felt like it would allow audiences more flexibility because it seemed like our production days were always overlapping with other theatre groups in the state of Delaware” said Ms. Gatto, who is also board president of the Kent County Theatre Guild.

“And then actors were always like ‘We do all this work for just two weekends?’ And then I started doing an analysis of our ticket sales and our revenue would go always go up in the second weekend. Because we always had the potential to build after people saw it the first weekend.

“Some of our shows like ‘Savannah Sipping Society’ or ‘Twelve Angry Men’ could have easily sold out with another weekend. We had a woman who brought her friends back for the matinee with ‘Savannah Sipping Society.’ We had to cram 15 or 20 chairs in for them.”

The expanded schedule for “Steel Magnolias” sees the show opening Friday night at 8 and then again Saturday at 8 p.m. It will continue Feb. 28 and 29 and March 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. The March 1 matinee is already sold out.

For tickets and more information, visit The Patchwork Playhouse is at 140 E. Roosevelt Ave. in Dover.

Now showing

New this weekend in theaters is Harrison Ford in “Call of the Wild”; the comedy “Impractical Jokers: The Movie”; and the horror sequel “Brahms: The Boy 2.”

On DVD and download starting Tuesday is the animated “Frozen II” and the all-star mystery “Knives Out.”