New Beginnings

ACT opens season with story of resilience

Photo by Gary M. Baranec Ava Adams “Annelle” prays for the soul of Jan Litfrell “Quizer in the Altoona Community Theatre presentation of “Steel Magnolias.”

Altoona Community Theatre opens its 2018-19 season September 20 to 23 with four performances of the Southern comedy-drama “Steel Magnolias” at the Mishler Theatre, sponsored by First National Bank.

Written by Robert Harling and based on his real-life experience with his sister’s death from diabetes-related complications, “Steel Magnolias” runs a gamut of emotions as it follows three generations of women who gather at a Louisiana beauty salon to laugh, cry and celebrate life events.

The show’s original 1987 Off-Broadway production ran for more than 1,000 performances before transferring to Broadway, but it gained its largest audience when translated into a film released in 1989 starring Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Sally Field and Shirley MacLaine.

ACT’s production is being directed by Emily Evey, 26, of Altoona. While this is Evey’s directorial debut, she’s no newcomer to the stage as she made her acting debut with the troupe in 2016’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Since then, she has helped behind-the-scenes on “The 39 Steps” and “Romeo and Juliet” for ACT and has worked repeatedly with Things Unseen Theatre Company.

“I think I bring an awareness to the social issues that the show touches on that are timeless,” Evey said. “I think the show touches on women’s rights, domestic violence, healthcare and other issues that are important regardless of the time when the show is being seen. These social issues are still relevant. They are delivered in a way that is masked in comedy.”

Evey selected an all-female cast and stage crew to give more women an opportunity to participate in local theater.

“The script takes the idea that women are fragile and not funny and puts it on its head. It really is important especially now … I think every woman experiences discrimination due to her gender identity regardless of how they identify. Talking about it — finding a way of talking about what being a woman means and what femininity means is important. Women are often put in a box and it’s not that simple and these women show it’s not that simple.”

One of the most fun aspects, she said, was hiring a professional photographer, Sly Photography of Altoona, to take head shots of the cast and crew to be used on the set. Dressed up in 1980s styles, the photos came out so well, the ones they couldn’t fit on the set are seen in the program.

The cast:

Truvy Jones, the beauty shop owner, is portrayed by Tammy Wolfe of Dysart, making her ACT debut. Last summer, she was featured in “Cheat Sheets” at Cresson Lake Playhouse.

Julie Binus of Altoona plays Shelby, the “prettiest girl in town” being married. She previously appeared in “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “Company,” “Leading Ladies” and others and has directed ACT’s Family Theatre presentations of “Miss Nelson Is Missing” and “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.” She also has taught ACT Summer Drama Camps for Children and Teens for several years.

Additional cast members are Jeanenne George as M’lynn, Shelby’s mother; Janet Littrell plays neighborhood curmudgeon Ouiser Boudreaux, Lois Kaneshiki plays Clairee, the late Mayor’s widow. Ava Adams plays Annelle, Truvy’s young, very religious shop assistant.

Binus returns from a six-year acting hiatus during which she became a mother to two daughters.

“I love the show,” she said. “After a break, I have been waiting for a show I really loved and cared about when it came up I knew this was it. The women in the show have such layered characters. They are strong women in each their own way. I think it is easy to relate to them. Being a mother, I actually relate more to M’Lynn now — there is a fear when you are not in control of your child and their safety — but there is a time to let your child to be set free and that brings on a whole set of different emotions.”

Her favorite “Shelby” line is “No way, pink is my signature color!”

Binus explains, “It is famous in the movie. Shelby is obsessed with the color pink. I think it shows how lively and naive she is.” Binus said.

Staff writer Patt Keith can be reached at 949-7030.