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“Steel Magnolias” at Phantom Projects Theatre Group

Delving into the inner strengths of ‘Steel Magnolias’

By Eric Marchese

If you’ve never seen “Steel Magnolias” on stage, and only know it through the star-studded 1989 movie version, you owe it to yourself to see how powerful this story and its characters are when you see them in live performance.

After all, Robert Harling’s Off-Broadway play preceded the film by just two years, did landslide-box office business wherever it was later staged, and the various casts prior to the Hollywood version included such notables as Joely Richardson, Barbara Rush, June Lockhart, Carole Cook and Rosemary Harris.

The play has enjoyed more than three decades of ongoing popularity in theaters of every size and at every level, and not just here in the U.S. but in France, Poland, Ireland, Sweden, Australia and Japan.

Now, Phantom Projects is producing the show at the La Habra theater (formerly The Depot) it rechristened in its own name at the start of 2022. Director Sydney Raquel is not only at the helm of Phantom’s upcoming staging; she’s also the show’s sound designer. Her team includes costume designer Zoe Wilber; Steve Cisneros, Phantom’s founder, who is both the lighting designer and artistic producer; and production stage manager Loren Morris.

Raquel said she has “always adored this play, but more specifically, the movie first.” She said the film version “was a staple growing up in my family. I have a largely matriarchal-led family, and the women in this play resonate with me because of that.”

She was also strongly attracted to “Steel Magnolias” for other reasons, and therefore eager to direct it for the stage: “I often gravitate towards work that explores womanhood, and this play really indulges what it means to be a woman in the different stages of life.”

Raquel said she has never seen the stage version of the play, “which was another reason I knew I needed to work on it,” and that it’s her first time directing it.

She reports that “one of the best challenges” in doing this show “is the technicality of the beauty salon – doing hair and nails on stage! We continuously joke this will quite literally be a 4-D experience, with the smell of nail polish and Aquanet filling the space.” To create and build such a specific scenic design, Raquel and Phantom brought in Staged Cinema, Fullerton-based Maverick Theater’s design department.

As for finding the right performers for the show, Raquel said she has “always loved” the casting process. “I gravitate towards actors who are unapologetically authentic – they make the play real, and that moves me. I also love when an actor can find the humor in the subtext. We need laughter, especially when life is too heavy, which is often!”

“I focus heavily on tablework in my process to capture the full picture of truly living in the circumstances of the play,” Raquel said. “We have a phenomenal cast bringing real women to life to tell this story.”

Natalie Kathleen carries the focal role of Shelby Eatonton-Latcherie, the story’s tragic heroine, and Tanya Raisa is cast as her mother, M’Lynn Eatonton. Sherry Domerego portrays Clairee Belcher, widow of the town’s former mayor, and Monica Rae Wilson is cast in the colorful role of sarcastic curmudgeon Louise “Ouiser” Boudreaux. Jeanetta Behr is cast as Truvy, who runs the beauty salon where the women congregate, and Natalie Botkins portrays Annelle, the shy young beauty school graduate who has just been hired by Truvy as a beautician.

The director noted that aside from Domerego, whom she has previously directed, this is her first time working with the rest of her cast members.

As for the story and its characters, playwright Harling and his family are from Louisiana, making him that much more familiar with the play’s characters and its milieu. Causing the heartfelt story to be all the more poignant is the fact that Harling based the doomed character of Shelby on his own sister, who died in 1985 from diabetic complications following the birth of her son – a true-life tragedy that must have made the writing of “Steel Magnolias” cathartic for Harling, but also difficult.

Director Raquel said that she keenly feels the emotions the show’s characters navigate, noting that the show “is similar in depth to other shows I’ve directed, exploring the vulnerability of love and grief.”

The show, she said, “is also largely different through its technical needs. I have a lot of technical detail going into this with props, set, and sound playing very large roles.”

Raquel is now in her sixth year as production manager at The Wayward Artist, where she directed the 2022 production of Anna Ziegler’s “Actually.” Her broad-based career encompasses directing on stage and in the medium of film and includes work as a cinematographer and film editor. Her bio states that her focus is the creation of “meaningful and authentic work of womanhood and the human experience,” a description that fits “Steel Magnolias” to a T.

Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 38 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.

‘Steel Magnolias’ Phantom Projects Theatre Group La Habra Depot 311 South Euclid St, La Habra, CA 90631 September 15-24, 2023

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