A sister's death is the unlikely comedic springboard for Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias," which opened Sunday as the season opener at the Pasadena Playhouse.
"My sister was a juvenile diabetic," explained the playwright, "and when she got married, she was advised by her specialist not to have children, that it would create serious complications. She decided that having a child was important to her, so she went ahead, got pregnant, had a child--and sure enough, her kidneys failed."
Harling's mother donated a kidney, but the transplant proved unsuccessful, and in late 1985 Susan died, leaving behind a 2-year-old son.
"I got obsessed by the thought that my nephew would grow up and never know his mother, the sacrifice she made so that he could live," Harling said. "So this is basically the story of her life, what she went through, what my mother went through--and the community of women that surrounded her, the support that was given. But the play is loosely based on that experience. I created a whole bunch of characters to help tell the story, illustrate that support system."
The production features Eve Brent, Carole Cook, Ronnie Claire Edwards, Dana Hill, Tracy Shaffer and, as the mother, Barbara Rush.
When "Magnolias" opened Off Broadway 16 months ago (where it's still going strong), it was quickly spotted by producer Ray Stark, and Harling--who up until then had made his career as an actor in New York--was soon writing the screenplay for the story. This summer, filming began in his hometown of Natchitoches, La., directed by Herbert Ross and starring Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah and Sam Shepard. (Harling himself has a small role as the town minister.)
"The movie is totally different from the play," he said, less comfortable discussing it than the stage version. "The play takes place in a beauty parlor on four Saturday mornings over the course of 2 1/2 years. In the movie, it's totally opened up. We're in the beauty parlor some, but we tell the story all through the community."
In spite of the charged setting, Harling felt no sense of his family's privacy being invaded.
"They loved it," he said flatly. "Sure, it's personal. But I told my version, my view of it. It's meant to celebrate my mother's and sister's strength. And I'm thrilled that the community is being portrayed. The story seems to touch a chord in a lot of people--about love and loss and what you do to get through (pain), how you play the hand that fate deals you. It just so happens that my family and community have always been characterized by a tremendous sense of humor--even in the darkest moments.
"I've never written anything before this," stressed Harling (who chooses to keep mum about his age). "I don't even consider myself a writer. I never set out to write a play. It just started as a short story for my nephew's benefit, then dialogue sort of reared its ugly head. I'm an actor and really enjoy the way these people talk--so I began putting it down on paper. In about 10 days it was a play."
He tries not to let the overnight success intimidate him.
"The thing that's saved me is that there's just so much work to do: polishing the play, then working on the screenplay. I have to do my homework, because if I don't have the answers, who does?"
Any fleeting insecurity?
"Constantly," the actor/writer said lightly. "I don't know what I'm doing. And being with those (movie) people, I was just in awe of their talent. I guess I am a little starstruck. But set aside the fact that they're stars, have won Oscars and are internationally famous--they're just extraordinary people."
With the film's recent wrap, Harling has returned to New York.
"I have to decide what happens now," he said. "I have every intention of going back to acting--but now I'll probably act in what I write."