The cast of the Actor’s Charitable Theatre’s production of Steel Magnolias tried their hardest to avoid watching the movie adaptation during their month of rehearsals, but most of them couldn’t resist.
Britney Gilbert, 18, must have watched the scene where Julia Roberts’ character has a diabetic seizure at least ten times just to be sure she could do the same accurately. Thanks to the help of a very durable DVD copy of the film and lots of outside research, she said she has learned quite a bit.
At a dress rehearsal on the Wednesday before the show’s opening on Saturday, June 7, she sat with her cast mates to reflect on the previous month’s rehearsals. Over the past month, she’d gained a tremendous amount of insight about how her character’s diabetes affected her relationships, particularly with her mother, who is played by Jody Evans, 46.
“I feel like [my character’s mother] is constantly down my back because she has to learn that I have to grow up and be on my own,” she said.
“And she’s never had a mom whose constantly down her back like that,” said Shari Gilbert who, judging by the large rollers in her bright blonde hair and her tight polka dot top, was chosen to play Dolly Parton’s character, Truvy. Shari Gilbert, 43, is Britney Gilbert’s real-life mother.
Britney Gilbert acknowledged her mother’s sarcasm with a playful smirk. As an incoming freshman in elementary education at the University of Alabama, she didn’t think she had much in common with Shelby, a 25 year-old mother with diabetes, when she was chosen to play her.
But Joey Lay, the show’s director, has a reputation for never casting an actor in the wrong role. Lay, 27, came up with the idea to present Steel Magnolias as part of the theatre’s spring “Let’s Go to the Movies” theme.
If you let Marla Moss tell it, Lay could walk into an audience packed with would-be actors and choose the right people to play every character in a production, probably while wearing a blindfold and a straight jacket.
But she has worked with him since 2004, after all, so perhaps there is truth to the claim. With three ex-husbands and an easy frown, Moss, 52, may not have been born to play Ouiser Boudreax, but she certainly did not need to do much outside research to relate to the character.
“She was married to two of the most worthless men in the universe,” Moss reasoned. ” I married three of the most worthless men in the universe. She had three of the most ungrateful children ever conceived. And I have three children. They’re not totally ungrateful, but they can be. I am Ouiser Boudreax.”
The shows other five actors sat surrounding Moss, with three sitting on opposite sides of her on the steps leading up to the stage and the remaining two sitting across from her in two front row chairs. They all laughed in agreement that she indeed was Ouiser Boudreax.
“My character has been married twice, and obviously divorced,” Moss continued. “Is that what you guys are getting from her, that she’s divorced? She didn’t lose anyone, did she?”
“She might have killed them off,” suggested Melinda Marshall, 43, who was chosen to play Clairee Belcher. “They might be buried in the back yard.”
The rest of the actresses barreled over in laughter at Marshall’s theory.
“You’re a black widow,” Marshall sneered at Moss.
The theory might not be so far-fetched, though. After all, Boudreax’s character is known for emphatically proclaiming during the play that “I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a bad mood for forty years!”
So Moss does admit, albeit jokingly, that she didn’t need to modify herself much for the role. The rest of the cast members, on the other hand, have a few more tricks for getting into character.
“I’ll tell you what I do, I change the way I sit” Marshall said, giggling. “I usually sit like this.”
She demonstrated by slouching back deep into her chair and, after pausing in place for a moment, she re-positioned herself once again in a posture consistent with her character.
“My character’s a southern lady,” she said with an exaggerated accent. “So I sit straight up with my ankles crossed. I try to be old fashioned about it.”
Of the six actors, Evans, who studied theater in college, has had the most formal training. Now a teacher at Trussville high school, Evans has taught herself to relate her character’s emotions to times in her own life when she felt similarly.
At each rehearsal, as Givens would storm across the stage in the final scene, demanding to know why her child had to die, her mind would turn back to her own son, who is now ten years old and has Autism Spectrum Disorder. She would think about the night when he was three years old and had to be hospitalized for meningitis. At the time, the doctors thought he might die. On stage now, the tears would begin to fill her eyes and her voice would soften as she pronounced each syllable of her monologue with haunting clarity.
“I couldn’t leave,” she’d recite to the other characters. “I just sat there holding Shelby’s hand as the sounds got softer and the beeps got farther apart until all was quiet. There was no noise, no tremble.”
Givens uses a trick an acting professor taught her years ago, and one that she now passes on to her students at Trussville High School. Every day before rehearsal, as she’s going about her routine, she occasionally stops to think about what her character would be doing at that very moment. Eventually, she and the character will become one.
“My poor husband tells me I’ve been babying him too much like my character in the play,” she laughed “I’m always asking him ‘did you do that?’ or telling him ‘you better make sure you drink that juice.'”
While Evans and Moss share enough experiences with their characters to make them seem connected, Jillian White, 27, doesn’t seem much like her character, the hyper-evangelical Anelle. At least not on the surface, anyway.
“Probably, you’re the one who’s least like your character,” Marshall told her.
“You think?” White asked, surprised. “When I told people I was playing Anelle they were like ‘oh my gosh, you are Anelle.'”
Marshall was at a loss.
“I don’t know, I guess I just assumed you were a fantastic actress,” she reasoned. White giggled. “Well, she is,” one of the actors echoed.
“Well, we can go with that!” White exclaimed and puffed her hair coyly. “Well, I feel like when I’m on stage as Anelle I really don’t have to act. In the beginning she’s just so awkward and nervous and I feel like that in a lot of my own life situations, so I feel like I’m not having to try very hard, but its fun.”
Each of the actors admits to being fans of the film adaptation of the play, originally written by Robert Harling. Nevertheless, they said that delving into the character’s emotions and motivations and comparing those to their own lives helped them to perform their own, unique version of the play.
“With a movie, the scene and the ambiance and the feel is captured on tape, you can watch it over and over and over again,” Moss said. “But with a play, you only have once chance to experience it. You can go watch [the same play] a hundred million times in a hundred million different places but you’ll never experience it the same in any one place.”

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