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Theater critic Kathleen Foley once suggested that the United States should dispatch multiple theater troupes to do Steel Magnolias in the Middle East. Once all that sweet Southern womanliness washed over the audience, she opined, the combatants would drop their guns and start holding bake sales.

Ah, if it were only so.

Whatever, local audiences can watch the comings and goings of the endearing characters who frequent Truvy's beauty shop in Chinquapin, La., as Richey Suncoast Theatre opens its version of Steel Magnolias, the popular comedy-drama about gentlewomen who are inwardly as tough as tenpenny nails.

The two-act play has been produced in several area theaters in recent years, but it continues to draw large and enthusiastic crowds.

"We have a wonderful cast, and they all just click," said Charlie Skelton, who stepped in when the original director had to leave for health reasons.

The play covers about two years in the lives of six women who have become fast friends as they work in or visit the small beauty shop in the back of the home of owner and head beautician Truvy Jones (Beverly Plummer, Kristine in A Chorus Line).

The current excitement is over the upcoming marriage of "the prettiest girl in town," Shelby (Ereka Passarella, Maggie Pie in HONK!), to good ol' boy Jackson, who stays off stage.

Shelby's mom, M'Lynn (Susan Nichols, Wicked Witch in Wizard of Oz), the acknowledged leader of society in the small town, is happy about the marriage, but also worried that Shelby might become pregnant, which could endanger her life, as she has Type 1 diabetes.

M'Lynn is bolstered by her pals, the genteel Clariee (Anne Lakey, Mrs. Daigle in Bad Seed), an eccentric millionaire widow, and the earthy, slightly uncouth Ouiser (Lorus A. Hawbecker, Sabrina Fair with the West Coast Players), the rich, irascible town curmudgeon.

The camaraderie in the shop has been interrupted by the arrival of young, shy Annelle (Meaghan Jameson, Lowbutt in HONK!), an apprentice beautician. Annelle is unsure if she is divorced, but she soon starts kicking up her heels around town, eliciting raised eyebrows and concern.

The women dish aboutmen and one another's behavior, and their bonds grow stronger with each new challenge. Their mettle is tested when Shelby decides to have a baby and M'Lynn faces a loss she thinks she can't bear.

Steel Magnolias is ultimately a story of friendship, love, and that staple of Southern literature and life - endurance.


'Steel Magnolias'

Where: Richey Suncoast Theatre, 6237 Grand Blvd., New Port Richey.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and the three subsequent weekends through March 9. Shows are at 8 p.m., except Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets: $15. Box office is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and an hour before each show. Call (727) 842-6777.