'Steel Magnolias' sets up shop on Seacoast

"Steel Magnolias" opens this weekend at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre, 125 Bow St., Portsmouth.

PORTSMOUTH -- The Mad Men of Oopsy Daisy, the creative duo known for their edgy productions of musicals and "Red Light" adult events at the Seacoast Repertory Theater, are taking a new "hyper-realistic" tack for their latest main stage play, the beloved dramatic comedy "Steel Magnolias."

Rather than abstract flights of fancy, "We're presenting a really hyper-realistic, beautiful story in exactly the way it's meant to be told. For us, that is the sexy twist on it," said Brandon James, who together with his Mad Men partner Ben Hart, is directing the show.

Opening weekend performances of "Steel Magnolias," which are timed to coincide with Mother's Day, are 7:30 p.m. today ($16-$26 for this preview); 8 p.m. Friday ($22-$44); 2 and 8 p.m Saturday ($22-$44) and 2 p.m. Sunday ($22 to $40) at the Seacoast Rep, 125 Bow St.

The Seacoast staging, to continue through June 1, coincides with a 30th anniversary re-release of the popular movie based on a play. It tells of the bonds among a group of women at a beauty parlor in a small Louisiana town, and how they are affected by the illness and early-motherhood death of one of their circle.

The 1987 play was written by Robert Harling in 10 days to cope with the death of his sister from diabetes complications. It draws heavily on the characters of the women in their lives.

"All of the women in the play that he wrote about were all real women that he grew up with in this Louisiana town. The dialogue is things that he remembered these women saying," James said. "It's a very '80s piece, and it’s a very southern piece. It's also a very human piece."

The movie, which Harling also wrote, is a faithful adaptation of the play. The Seacoast Rep's production stays true to both.

"If you love the movie you get exactly what you loved about the movie on stage," James said. "All of the famous, iconic lines that people love about the movie are here in the show."

In their quest for a hyper-real production, James and Hart recreated to the smallest details the story's setting of an in-home beauty parlor. They lucked out by finding a stylist's complete salon from the 1980s.

"We got her whole salon with all the vintage chairs and vintage equipment. It's literally exactly what that salon would have been, and it all still works," Hart said. "Inside the salon there's running water and working outlets, and they're actually cutting hair and washing hair and drying hair on stage," he said.

Executing the haircuts and styling on stage was the biggest challenge, Hart said. Cast members trained with professional cosmetologists and beauticians. The opening scene depicts preparations for the wedding of the young woman, Shelby, played by one of the Rep's versatile resident artists, Alyssa Dumas.

"You have to believe at the end of the styling that she's going to her wedding," Hart said.

Samantha Smith emerges from a longtime production manager role at the Rep to appear in the spotlight as a newcomer to town, Annelle.

"She has surprised everyone with an immense level of talent.," James said. "She is a masterful actress; it came completely out of left field."

The other four roles are played by Cathy McKay, Kelli Leigh-Ann Connors, Mary Lou Bagley and Seraphim Afflick.

"The cast is an absolute powerhouse cast. If we were to get a billion-dollar budget and remake the movie, these are the women we would cast in the movie version of the show."

James contrasted the "Steel Magnolias" cast with the youthful high-energy casts of many of the Mad Men productions for the Seacoast Rep, such as "Avenue Q" and "Reefer Madness."

"This has been a very different process in that it's more quiet, it's more intimate," he said. "It's a room full of professional adults exploring the human experience."

For information, call 433-4472 or visit seacoastrep.org