February 25, 2010 in Washington Voices

‘Magnolias’ spirit flourishes in town

Michae’L Elaine Alegria
Photo by Elise Turlo photo

Michae’l Elaine Alegria, right, talks with Robert Harling Sr. and Margaret Harling at the Steel Magnolia House bed and breakfast in Natchitoches, La. Much of the movie was filmed at the house. Photo by Elise Turlo
(Full-size photo)

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True to Oscar Wilde’s famous quote that “Art imitates life,” playwright Robert Harling took the essence of his own life and wove it into one of the best-loved American plays and subsequent movie, “Steel Magnolias.”

Although “Steel Magnolias” is often referred to in terms of a chick flick, Harling based the play on his sister, Susan (“Shelby”) and the small town where they grew up, Natchitoches, La.

Most women will tell you they love the play and the movie. For me, the story, and the fact that it is actually true, really got into my soul and although I cannot explain why the story is so important to me, I did know that I needed to go to Natchitoches (pronounced “Nack-a-tish”) to see where “Steel Magnolias” all began and to meet the author and people behind its magic.

After meeting a friend in Shreveport, La., on a Friday afternoon, we drove 60 miles south to Natchitoches. I was thrilled to be staying at the house where most of the movie was filmed, which is now a bed and breakfast ( www.steelmagnoliahouse.com). I was beyond fanaticism at this point and the real adventure had not yet even begun.

Natchitoches was exactly what I had imagined, partly because the movie was filmed there, but also because the people were indescribably friendly and helpful. Our bed and breakfast hostess stayed up late to meet us after our flights were delayed. Our tour guide, Lori Tate (who played the groom’s mother in the film) spent all Saturday with us showing us where Harling grew up, where he lived now and of course, the tiny little beauty parlor behind the home of the woman who used to do his mother’s hair every Saturday morning. It was here in this quaint, understated little home that the inspiration for “Steel Magnolias” came to life for Harling.

Meeting the author was something I had hoped for with this trip. After writing to Harling before I left for Louisiana and not receiving a reply, I had resigned myself to the fact that it probably wasn’t going to happen. However, while touring the cemetery where the funeral scene was filmed, I received a call on my cell phone from our hostess at the Steel Magnolia House, letting me know that Harling’s parents would like to come meet with me back at the house.

The Harlings (“Drum and M’Lynn Eatenton” in the play and movie) represented the spirit of “Steel Magnolias” better than anyone I met during my entire trip to Louisiana. They actually tried to apologize that their son couldn’t make it, explaining he was out of town working on a screenplay.

“But he wanted us to come meet his biggest fan,” they said.

They visited with me for an entire afternoon, telling me stories of their daughter, Susan, her struggles with Type 1 diabetes, her decision to have a baby against all medical advice and her subsequent death from this decision. Margaret Harling, who in real life really did give her daughter one of her kidneys, spoke just barely above a whisper when talking about it.

“If I could have,” she said tearfully, “I would have given her my other kidney, too.”

Robert Harling Sr. said it best, when asked how the play and movie has changed his life.

“My son likes us to participate in his good fortune,” referencing his son’s generosity.

Although their daughter has been gone now for more than 25 years, the Harlings spoke of her as if they had just seen her yesterday. They are still close to her son, the baby depicted in the play and movie, and had spoken to him just that very day.

When our visit was up, they signed my “Steel Magnolias” playbook.

“Thank you for caring,” they wrote.

Whatever I was looking for by going to where “Steel Magnolias” began, I certainly found it. “Steel Magnolias” is about going above and beyond for someone else. This happened over and over to me in my short stay there, especially when meeting the author’s parents. I laughed and cried with people I had never met over things we have never shared but we all seemed to understand the fragility of life and how celebrating it makes us all better people.

When the Spokane Civic Theatre does their own production of “Steel Magnolias” beginning Friday, I will be seeing it again with more appreciation for what really inspired the story and yes, laughing and crying all the way though.

Michae’l Elaine Alegria lives in Spokane. She can be reached by e-mail at thewritegirl@journalist.com

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