JANESVILLE—Coming out of a worldwide pandemic, you could say a play centered on a young woman’s illness and subsequent death might not be the most uplifting vehicle for a theater group’s return.

That might be, but only if you focus only on the negative aspects of the story.

When Janesville Little Theatre brings its production of “Steel Magnolias” to the Janesville Performing Arts Center later this month, director Steve Shaw hopes audiences will instead latch onto the messages of hope and courage that permeate the script.

“It’s a wonderful show with a really funny story and a lot of jokes, too,” he said. “There is tragedy, but it’s a really touching story about bravery and love and a group of women who truly care about one another.”

Popularized by its 1989 film adaptation, the 1987 play by Robert Harling shares the story of a beauty school graduate, Annelle, who enters a job at an in-home beauty parlor in northern Louisiana. Other characters include shop owner Truvy; the former town mayor’s widow, Claree; Claree’s best friend, Ousier; a local social worker, M’Lynn, and M’Lynn’s eldest daughter, Shelby.

While preparing for her wedding at Truvy’s shop, Shelby, a Type-1 diabetic, suffers a hypoglycemic attack. She quickly recovers, but a visit to her doctor reveals Shelby’s condition makes it unsafe for her to have children.

Despite this warning, Shelby and her husband, Jackson, have a son, Jackson Jr. But the young mother soon develops kidney failure, undergoing regular dialysis before receiving a kidney transplant from her mother.

All appears well until Shelby’s husband comes home one day to find her unconscious. With Shelby comatose in the hospital, diagnosed with an irreversible condition, the characters come together as one to face this tragedy and offer support in the family’s time of need.

Shaw said the acting in the local production has been so strong that he was overcome with emotion during rehearsals.

“This is the first time I have ever had where, in our very first rehearsal, the actresses actually brought tears to my eyes. First time,” he said. “There are just so many heartwarming and touching aspects to this play.”

Though the male characters in the play are mentioned, and their presences are alluded to, the JLT show cast is composed entirely of women.

“Aside from some two-person shows, I don’t know of any others where the cast is all ladies,” Shaw said. “This is the first show like that that I have directed, and I’m fortunate to have a great cast.”

Ironically, the local production takes place the month before National Diabetes Awareness Month in November. Shaw said the timing is purely coincidence, but the casting is a slight nod to the effects the disease can have on those who face it.

“The lady who plays M’Lynn (Stephanie Boettcher) is a tall woman, and Saralyn (Duncan, who plays Shelby) is quite petite,” Shaw said. “One of the reasons I picked the two of them is because M’Lynn is strong, outgoing and a master of her faith. Shelby ends up with diabetes as a juvenile and never develops into a strong, athletic woman like her mother. Not that she’s not powerful in her own right, but her strength comes from her heart and how she thinks about things.”

Other members of the cast include Candace Griffin as Annelle, Mary Beth Klietz as Truvy, Melissa Defebaugh as Claree and Laura Johnson as Ouiser.

Entering its 93rd year, Janesville Little Theatre is the oldest community theater group in the state of Wisconsin, and one of the three oldest nationwide. Last year, the group was limited to offering one production, an online fundraiser show titled “A Virtual Whodunnit.”

“We made more money than we spent on that one, so it served its purpose,” Shaw said. “But we couldn’t even rehearse together for that one. Even those were done online.”

Now able to return to the stage before a live audience, Shaw and his cast plan to take advantage of the opportunity.

“Not being able to be on stage or to direct, (the last year has been) a difficult situation for creative people,” he said. “This cast is very strong, and I’ve been very impressed. I think the audience will be very pleased with this show, and hopefully be touched, as well.”


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