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Although Harling has said he wanted his play to "tell the story" of his sister's untimely death, the plot of Steel Magnolias is not a conventional narrative.

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Although Harling has said he wanted his play to "tell the story" of his sister's untimely death, the plot of Steel Magnolias is not a conventional narrative. In a "story" we are accustomed to seeing the conflicts that arise when characters confront daunting obstacles and make crucial choices in the pursuit of important goals. In Steel Magnolias, however, the story of Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie--her pursuit of motherhood, the obstacle of her illness, her decision to become pregnant in spite of it, the resulting breakdown in her health--occurs entirely offstage. So too does the sub-story of Annelle: her troubles with a criminal husband, her re-birth as a Christian zealot, her second marriage and pregnancy. As with the events in Shelby's life, these critical moments happen elsewhere. What we see onstage, the incidents that make up the plot of the play, are the reactions of Truvy Jones and her customers to these stories that are unfolding in the outside world. The action is thus prismatic, the characters filtering and refracting the significant moments in the lives of Shelby and--to a lesser extent--Annelle. What organizes the play, then, is not narrative momentum, but emotional complexity, the unfolding of a pattern of feeling and friendship that defines this small community of women. ...read more.


The second scene occurs later in the same year, on the Saturday before Christmas. It opens with Shelby and M'Lynn alone on stage, each waiting for her new holiday hairdo. When Shelby tells her mother that she is pregnant, we witness a moment that is typical of the overall structure of the play. The important choices and actions have happened elsewhere. What occurs onstage is the process of adjustment: SHELBY. Mama. Don't be mad. I couldn't bear it if you were. It's Christmas. M'LYNN. I'm not mad, Shelby. This is just . . . hard. Shelby knows that she is risking her life by bearing a child, but she has decided to take that risk. The scene between her and her mother becomes a plea for acceptance by Shelby, and a struggle to assimilate the unsettling news by M'Lynn. What changes is their feelings, not the facts that constitute Shelby's tragic story. Annelle, we learn, "is settling down and finding her way." After a shaky start in the first scene, she has now mastered the challenges of the workplace, and has taken on the job of decorating the beauty shop for Christmas. ...read more.


As on previous occasions, they offer consolation and support: ANNELLE: God bless you, Shelby. TRUVY: You're going to be the sassiest girl in that hospital. M'LYNN. Well, what about me? SHELBY. You ladies better come visit us! CLAIREE. I'll be sitting right by your side when you wake up. Yours, too, M'Lynn. I'll manage it somehow. The final scene takes place after Shelby's death and is again a process of adjustment to a terrible fact. "[T]his morning I wanted to come here more than anything," M'Lynn says after describing the scene of her daughter's death. And she wonders, "Isn't that silly?" Truvy, of course, tells her it isn't, realizing that what the grieving mother needs is exactly what is available among her friends. And what she finally experiences at the shop is a catharsis she had been unable to achieve outside this intimate sanctuary: "Maybe it was about time I had an emotional outburst. Maybe I'll start having them at home more often. . . . I'm so glad I came by. Shelby would've had a good time here this morning." We realize with these words that the plot of the play has been a sequence of such moments of healing release, four scenes in which the traumas of the offstage stories are treated with the medicines of friendship, humor, and empathy. ...read more.

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