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Playwright: Robert Harling

Director: Victoria Holloway

Cast: Cathey Crowell Sawyer, Emma Charlotte Redding, Mimi Rice, Sarah Peacock, C.C. Loveheart, Carol Whiteleather

Opens 8 p.m. today and runs through Dec. 8. Tickets are $10-$25 and are available by calling 822-8814 (St. Petersburg).

Robert Harlings' play reflects on how they put on a brave face and smile through the tears.

If you were one of the many people who enjoyed the slice of Southern life in last year's popular film setting of Steel Magnolias, the stage play will offer you a different picture.

"I thought the film was less than successful," said Victoria Holloway, artistic director of American Stage and director of the theater's production of Steel Magnolias. "People who enjoyed the film will enjoy the play, but it will be slightly different."

The film version of Steel Magnolias was a star-studded affair that included Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis and Daryl Hannah. The star power distracted from the intimate relationships of the female leads that made the play so strong. Playwright Robert Harling wrote the screenplay and added male characters and other action that diluted the charms of the original.

Set in Natchitoches, La., the stage Magnolias's world is Truvy's beauty parlor, where the women of the town gather to trade gossip, console each other and comment on the paths of their lives.

The central relationship of the story is between M'Lynn and her daughter Shelby, who suffers from diabetes. Their efforts to deal with the disease and move forward with their lives are a primary dramatic issue of the work.

"I think there's a very steady undercurrent of fortitude in the play that enables it to rise to the level of drama," said Holloway. "The play's essential emotion is one of laughing through tears."

The play strikes Holloway close to home.

"Just as playwright Robert Harling lost his sister to diabetes and used that as the basis for the play, I lost my 27-year old brother to diabetes," she said. "That's a part of the play I understand very well."

The play also gives a strong picture of female bonding. Truvy's beauty parlor is something of a sanctuary where problems can be discussed freely. Unlike the film, there are no male characters in the play.

"I think women, as well as men, speak differently to each other when they're alone with people of the same sex," said Holloway. "Harling is writing about his sister and his mother and all the other ladies of his town that he heard as he was growing up."

Steel Magnolias also shows a picture of Southern life without the usual caricatures that usually creep up when portraying the region.

Though the success of the film might attract some audience members, Holloway said the success is double-edged.

"I think the play," she said, "has been ruined by success in many people's minds."