Good hair & great gossip

“Don’t even come in here!” the sleekly coiffed receptionist at Eclipse Salon & Boutique declared, recoiling in mock disdain when I told her what I was after. (Here’s a hint: It wasn’t an inch off the ends.)

I wanted to talk about Steel Magnolias, the 1980s beauty-parlor play now coming to the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in Mars Hill. The story is, of course, much better known in its movie incarnation starring Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine and a host of other big-name, big-haired Hollywood types.

“There’s a huge difference between a beauty parlor and a hair salon,” sniffed Eclipse stylist Ivan Rojas. “This is an upscale color-and-cut salon. Ladies who come here are more professionally minded. That type of hairdressing [found in Steel Magnolias] is where people get their hair done once a week.”

Quelle horror.

But even at Rumors, where the clientele does tend to drop by on a weekly basis, stylist and self-professed Magnolias fan Saundra Hall is quick to point out, “We’re more sophisticated than they were then — they were like Betty’s Beauty Barn.”

While Rojas is at first adamant that there are no similarities between his Wall Street shop and Truvy’s Beauty Spot (Truvy is the movie version’s Dolly Parton character), he does finally concede to one common trait: the gossiping.

“All hair dressers are universal gossips,” the stylist imparts.

Which is, of course, what makes Steel Magnolias — despite all the thick layers of ’80s cheese it makes you swallow — so good.

“We all know that women gather in beauty parlors and talk — often about men — but we still enjoy it,” asserts Bill Gregg, director for the Mars Hill play.

Girl, you won’t believe what I just heard

Steel Magnolias brought about the ‘new woman of the South,'” Gregg asserts. “And a man wrote it, not a woman, which is surprising.”

Steel Magnolias author Robert Harling’s inspiration for the play was the women in his life, the director notes.

“He, like me, grew up in the South,” Gregg continues. “Like a lot of boys, our mothers and aunts went to the beauty parlor, [and] as kids, we went with them. It was sort of like a rite of passage, before we were old enough to go off hunting and fishing with the men.”

Harling’s script suggests he was that proverbial fly on the wall — except that the playwright claims to have never set foot into that permed-and-frosted feminine world.

“I needed a place where [the characters] could go and let their hair down,” he’s explained, recalling that on Saturday mornings, all the women in the neighborhood would disappear, leaving the menfolk to fend for themselves until the women reappeared “with their little helmet hairdos.”

Despite Harling’s practical ignorance about the land of perms, dryers and nails, he set the entire play in Truvy’s Beauty Spot — a major difference from the popular movie version of the story. And here’s another surprise for Magnolias fans of the Hollywood rendition: The play’s cast is comprised only of six women: Truvy, Annelle, Clairee, Shelby, M’Lynn and Ouiser (pronounced “Weezer”).

“In the play, you hear about the men through what the women have to say about them,” Gregg reveals. “Our only experience with [them] is through the vivid descriptions given by the women, and that’s so much more dramatic than if those men actually walked through the door.”

If ya got it, flaunt it

“There’s no such thing as natural beauty,” goes Truvy’s famous motto.

“Oh, I do think there’s natural beauty,” Rumors stylist Saundra Hall disagrees. “But it’s all about enhancing what you already have.”

“I disagree with [Truvy],” declares Eclipse stylist Ivan Rojas, glancing at the client in his chair. “But I like what she was saying.

But, he notes, he’s also fond of what Annelle said: “I won’t let my past get in the way of doing good hair.”

Big hairnets to fill

Part of the challenge in staging the play is overcoming preconceptions of movie fans who arrive at the theater expecting the see Parton and Roberts grace the stage — at least in spirit.

“Everyone thinks of Truvy as the Dolly Parton role,” Gregg admits with a sigh. “They don’t even think about the woman who originally acted the part.”

Gregg has a pretty good grasp on casting each of the six characters — he’s done this play before as part of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, beginning in 1988, around the same time the movie version was released.

What qualities is Gregg shooting for with his play’s lead beautician? “Wittiness, colloquial humor and wisdom, and a good-hearted, salt-of-the earth person,” he reveals.

Carrie Howard, who handles the Truvy role for the SART production, adds “mother hen” and “peace maker with flair and flamboyancy” to the list.

Ida Ginn, tackling the Ouiser role, offers her take on the character made famous by Shirley MacLaine: “She’s the town grouch.”

“If one more person says [of my taking the part], ‘This is typecasting,’ I’m going to kill them,” Ginn adds, deadpan.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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