By George Basler

Shawn Yetter knows he’s taking a risk directing Steel Magnolias, which opens a three-weekend run Friday (Feb. 17) at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center in Owego.

But the risk — working with highly recognizable material thanks to the play’s enormously popular, much-loved film adaptation — was worth taking.

“It’s a beautiful film, but I also think the play is more powerful. It’s just these women in one setting. You get engaged,” Yetter said.

The play takes place in Truvy’s Beauty Salon in the fictional Louisiana parish of Chinquapin, where six women meet regularly to gossip, discuss their personal lives, exchange wisecracks and cope with personal conflicts and heartbreaks.

The story mixes upbeat humor with moments of deep sadness. “The emotion comes out, because the play is so well written,” Yetter said, adding, “It’s a story, or a tribute, to enduring friendships and how these relationships take you on different journeys.”

The title refers to the fact that the characters are as “delicate as magnolias but tough as steel.” Robert Harling, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter, wrote the play using his own personal heartache –the death of his sister from diabetic complications after the birth of her son — as his inspiration.

Originally, Steel Magnolias was a short story that Harling hoped would give his nephew an understanding of his deceased mother. The work later evolved into a stage play that debuted Off-Broadway in New York in 1987 and two years later opened as a movie starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine. A Lifetime TV version received a 2012 Emmy nomination.

“I’ve always been a big fan of the show,” said Yetter, who directed a previous Ti-Ahwaga production in 1995. “It doesn’t feel dated, even though it was written in the 1980s, because these are such strong women whose relationships are very real.”

The play is very much an ensemble piece. The characters are the beauty salon owner, Truvy, who dispenses advice along with shampoos; a mother/daughter duo planning a wedding; a rich curmudgeon; the town’s former first lady, and Truvy’s assistant, a shy newcomer in town.

The Ti-Ahwaga production features a good mix of actresses who have performed in other Ti-Ahwaga productions and newcomers to the company, Yetter said. They are Christina Taylor, Kylee Thetga, Jessica Pullis, Julia Adams, Linda Fenescey and Amy Gilbert.

Taylor, who is playing Truvy, auditioned for the role because she loved the film and welcomed the fact that most of the characters are more mature women in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. “Great roles like these don’t come along every day,” she said.

Playing Dolly Parton’s film role is a bit intimidating, Taylor conceded: “Dolly Parton is really a national treasure.” But she is working to make the character her own. The most important thing is conveying the character’s positive attitude, which fits in with the dynamic of the other women, she said.

In describing the play, Taylor said she agrees with the assessment that Steel Magnolias is “the funniest show that will make you cry.”

The key to directing is getting cast members comfortable enough with their characters that they’re believable as longtime friends, Yetter said. He is working with Chris Pellicano, the play’s producer who owns his own beauty salon, to make sure the details of the setting are accurate.

“It’s always risky business to direct a play that’s become popular through a film, Yetter said, “but this is such a nice piece of theater that people will enjoy it.”

IF YOU GO: Ti-Ahwaga Community Players will present Steel Magnolias weekends from Feb. 17 to March 5. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego. Tickets at $25 and $30 may be purchased at or by calling the box office at 607-687-2130.