ST. PETERSBURG — When the cast of American Stage's Steel Magnolias was assembled, the first thing director Bob Devin Jones had the actors do was gather around a table.
This play was about women, their strengths, imperfections, the connections they forge through it all. For the play to work, the cast needed to channel that for real.
Jones had everyone name a woman they admired. Perri Gaffney, who plays bellyaching neighborhood crank Ouiser, talked about her mother.
"My mother was a little tiny, tiny lady but she was so strong," Gaffney said. "She was very clear. In the '60s, when women were burning their bras, my sister said, 'You going to burn your bra and show you're free?' And my mother said, 'I've always been free, and I don't have to burn my bra to prove it.' "
Jones is guiding six women through the nuance, humor and sadness of Robert Harling's classic play for American Stage's production, which features an all African-American cast.
"All these women were raised by black women, and there are a couple of elder actors in here, so it's really me just shepherding and being very specific about what needs to occur," he said. "And they just look into their own pasts."
The work, Jones said, honors black women who served as both matriarch and patriarch.
"It can't be lost on the audience," he said. "Even the most liberal-minded person. We are people that used to be purchased and owned and sold. There are many things that got us across the middle passage in those years of slavery, and for the most part men had their role. But the women were in the households and the fields."
The themes are universal, too — the bonds between women, love, loss. Harling wrote the piece, which chronicles diabetic bride Shelby's marriage and mission to have a child, to cope with the death of his own sister. It debuted off-Broadway in 1987.
Two years later, the movie starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts came out.
In 2012, Lifetime adapted the film with an all-black cast starring Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, Condola Rashad, Adepero Oduye, Phylicia Rashad and Alfre Woodard. Jones watched about five minutes of it before deciding to let the script speak to him on its own.
Whitney Drake, who plays Shelby, watched both movies. By the time she got to the 1989 film, she wished she hadn't watched. While the seizure scene with Rashad was subtle, she found Roberts' take chillingly intense.
"Julia Roberts, she just went there," said Drake, who started rehearsals for Steel Magnolias in her final week playing Dorothy in American Stage's production of The Wiz. "It kind of freaked me out. I researched seizures and epilepsy and diabetics who have seizures, and it really scared me. And when I did it for the first time I was so nervous. Talk about nerves."
Jones, too, thought he might like the pivotal scene more subtle. But soon, he and the cast realized Drake had to take it to the limit for the story to have as much impact. Veteran actor Sharon Scott came in to help Drake work through the scene.
"Once I started to do it, I just felt this calmness come over me," Drake said.
The next day, she called her mother. It felt like there was some presence in the room that day of rehearsals, she said. Well, her mother reminded her, that was her grandmother's birthday.
At that first table meeting, Drake had named her grandmother as her inspiring woman.
"So that's who was in that room," she said.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @StephHayes on Twitter.