Usually when a director is driven to tears, it means there's a diva in the cast and lots of backstage drama. But for Pat Kerley, director of "Steel Magnolias," opening Friday at Bakersfield Community Theatre, the tears are an expression of joy.
"These actresses are brilliant. I'm in tears every night," Kerley said of the six-woman cast.
And she thinks that the waterworks may spread for the duration of the show's run, which continues through April 19.
"I'm toying with the idea of putting baskets of Kleenex in the audience."
The deck's stacked against theatre-goers interested in remaining dry-eyed: The show is adapted from a 1987 work by Robert Harling, who wrote the play for his nephew, who never knew his mother -- Harling's sister -- who died young from diabetic complications.
No doubt you know the six close-knit friends of Louisiana's fictional Chinquapin Parish from the 1989 film starring Julia Roberts as the youthful and headstrong Shelby and Sally Field as her equally stubborn mother, M'Lynn. But this show won't be a retread of the movie, assures Kerley, who said she learned the hard way after seeing the Broadway production of "The Producers" after Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane had finished their run.
"One of the worst shows I've ever seen ... The actors were doing (their version) of Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane.
"The last thing in the world I wanted was for these actresses to pretend to be Dolly Parton or Sally Field. They give it their own flavor and their own spin."
Heading up the cast are real-life mother and daughter DeAnn and Spencer Surratt, whom Kerley had worked with on "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever."
"That real (mother-daughter) relationship certainly translates ... I've known Spencer and DeAnn for a number of years. It is a real treat to be able to work with them."
Rounding out the regulars at Truvy's beauty parlor are Laurie Howlett as society matron Miss Clairee, Laura Ho as town curmudgeon Ouiser, Jessica Jans as newcomer Annelle and Ronda Heath as Truvy.
Heath was a late addition after the actress originally cast as the outspoken beautician had to drop out.
"It was so beautiful to see them accept her as their new Truvy. ... She (Ronda) came all the way from Arizona. She's going to stay with DeAnn for the run of the show."
That sisterly bond has grown strong during the rehearsal process.
"This cast of actresses cares about one another. I thought that dealing with just women that I would have 'funky girl problems.' There has been no drama whatsoever.
"If you didn't know better you'd think these women had known each other their whole lives. You can't buy it. You can't fake this."
Friendship and the other overarching themes in the show make it relatable to women and men alike, Kerley said.
"Shelby says,'I'd rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.' That line resonates with people. They want to make their mark someplace.
"The story is universal. There is no one who can't relate to loss, to friendship, to family and the struggle you go through with family."
Kerley had an easier time working with her own relatives, whom she said were instrumental in helping bring "Magnolias" to life, from her husband and son building sets, her daughter trouble-shooting and her mother-in-law helping prep the theater for opening weekend.
"This show has the potential of being the best thing I've ever done. ... It's been a fun ride and I'm really grateful for it."