Decades ago, Julia Roberts landed her breakout role in Steel Magnolias (1989) based on the 1985 play based on writer Robert Harling’s sister. A People’s Choice Award for Favorite Dramatic Motion Picture and CBS pilot followed in 1990 as well as a Lifetime remake in 2012. Now, Chicagoans can see the timeless dramedy at Drury Lane Theatre. And Rebellious readers can see what the play’s director Johanna McKenzie Miller has to say right here.

Janet Arvia: This new production features an all-female cast—from understudy Meighan Gerachis of HBO’s Somebody Somewhere to Joseph Jefferson Award-winning actress Janet Ulrich Brooks of stage (Master Class), film (Divergent) and TV (Fargo)—as well as an all-female creative team. Why was it important to have women working behind the curtain?

Johanna McKenzie Miller: It was important to have an all-female team in part because it rarely happens. And Drury Lane Theatre and I felt that we had a wonderful opportunity to lift up women on the production, design and technical side of the theater to tell this beautiful female-centered story. Women’s voices have historically been left out of so many conversations that effect women. I wanted the chance to collaborate and explore the play with people who have the shared lived experience of being women.

In addition to directing Kiss Me Kate at Marriott Theatre, you played Elizabeth in Drury Lane’s Young Frankenstein. How does your experience as an actress inform your directing?

Acting is listening. So, when I begin to work with a cast for the first time I need to be listening. I can devise as many moments and create as many stage pictures as I want in my head, but they have to live in it. I am learning to draw inspiration from how they respond to the text, and the emotions, and the tech elements too. For example, with staging I might ask them to try something, and often I can see that they want to move, or they feel stuck, or they want to hold absolutely still. That informs me so much and then I can use that information to shape the scene or moment that I have imagined to help it come to life through the actors’ work and instincts.

Tri-Star Pictures (1989) and Sony Pictures (2012) adaptations of ‘Steel Magnolias’

Other than the obvious variations between the mediums, what differences can fans of the film versions expect to see in the live play?

The biggest differences are that the entire play takes place in Truvy’s salon and there are no men in the play. The movie has many locations and more characters than the six ladies we meet in the play. I think it is fun for fans of the movie to hear the names of people and hear the ladies talk about events that they remember from the movie.

Steel Magnolias focuses on women bonding. Why are female friendships so important?

Women have to wear so many different hats in one day. The societal expectations of a women’s looks, her temperament, her relationship to her partner, her home or work life, often leave women exhausted and overextended. And so having a soft place to land where you can set aside all of those hats and just be yourself is very important.


Steel Magnolias is rated PG and performs through Aug. 7 at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. For tickets ($64-$79), call 630-530-0111 or visit DruryLaneTheatre.

Janet Arvia

Ms. Arvia is a Rebellious columnist and movie critic; entertainment ghostwriter; award-winning artist; and grant-winning filmmaker.