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Play a personal journey

Chemainus production of Steel Magnolias hits close to home for director
Director Nicola Cavendish said it has been a very rewarding experience to bring Robert Harling’s classic production of Steel Magnolias to the Chemainus stage.

For director Nicola Cavendish, Steel Magnolias is a very personal story.

Bringing the play to Chemainus has, at times, transported Cavendish right back to 1968, when she was struggling with diabetes and slipped into a coma — the same situation as Steel Magnolias’ main character, Shelby.

“It’s unavoidable. It’s taking me right back to 1968 when I, too, went into a coma, but I came out the other side.”

Cavendish, a director of 10 years, said the writer of the original play, Robert Harling, penned the play within one week of his own sister dying from diabetes.

“I’m so interested, I want to know the details of his sister.

“She went into a diabetic coma and didn’t come out. He wrote it in a week and it continues to be played all around the world,” said Cavendish.

“It says a lot about the play.”

Thanks to a New York connection, Cavendish has been able to get a hold of Harling’s e-mail address and is currently, carefully, crafting an e-mail to tell him the impact his play has had on her.

“I want to write to him and tell him how rich working on his play has been,” said Cavendish, who wants to make the right first impression.

Steel Magnolias follows the story of Shelby, a bride-to-be living with diabetes and her companions who frequent Turvy’s Louisiana beauty salon, the setting for the play.

Shelby’s struggles unfold over the course of two years.

“We follow Shelby’s health,” said Cavendish.

There are plenty of messages in the play, but Cavendish said the one that sticks out for her is that the world always needs love.

And that material — dealing with life and death — has made this one of the most rewarding projects for Cavendish.

“It expresses loss beautifully,” she said.

Cavendish said the characters are easy relate with, noting the writer declares they are not caricatures, but real women — witty, intelligent and full of humour.

The stage production differs from the movie, as the entire play takes part in the beauty salon.

Working with the setting has been an adventure for Cavendish, who admitted she knew near nothing about the state of Louisiana.

“They’ve got great politeness and great etiquette,” Cavendish said of Louisiana residents.

“It’s the way they talk to each other. The women speak with a sense of truth and honesty, but there is a lovely politeness around it.”

There are also great gaps between the rich and poor and that diversity comes across during production.

“It’s very engaging and extremely moving.”

The play is aptly named said Cavendish, who notes the women themselves are strong as steel, yet still very focused on their beauty and appearance.

Cavendish said she is very pleased with the cast, which represents a wide-range of age and experience.

Everyone has been ahead of schedule — a sign, Cavendish said, that everyone is embracing their roles.

The set will also be a sight to be hold as it is a functioning 1980s beauty salon.

“If anyone wanted to come get their hair done, they could,” joked Cavendish.

Cavendish said she just wants people to come out and enjoy the production.

“You’ll laugh at it and you cry with it.”

Steel Magnolias runs from April 21 to June 4 at the Chemainus Theatre Festival. Call 250-246-9820 or visit for more information.

Cast and crew biographies are also available at

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