Jordan Best is making her Canberra Repertory Society debut as director of Steel Magnolias, which she calls ''a beautiful, beautiful story''.
Robert Harling's 1987 play is ''very, very funny and extremely sad'', she says. She had not seen the play or the 1989 film adaptation before reading it, but was captivated by its characters and liked what she saw as its message: ''Life goes on''.
The play focuses on six women of various ages in the Louisiana parish of Chinquapin over three years in the 1980s. They regularly gather on Saturdays at the hairdressing salon run by one of them, Truvy (Rose Braybrook), from her garage. Despite their differences in wealth and social status, they are all equals here and all friends.
''It's a hangout as much as a hairdressing salon.''
The play begins on the wedding day of Shelby (Nell Shipley), daughter of M'lynn (Karen Vickery). Truvy has recently employed 19-year-old Annelle (Amy Dunham), who is new in town, abandoned by her husband who was in trouble with the law and is not even sure if her marriage is legal.
Also in the circle are Clairee (Liz Bradley), the widow of the previous mayor and wealthy, grumpy Ouiser (Judi Crane), both in their 60s.
The play explores the events in the lives of the characters and their relationships. Shelby is the main character, with the other characters revolving around what happens to her. She has type-1 diabetes and has been advised not to have children, as it would put too much stress on her body, but she gives birth despite the risks.
Annelle finds God and becomes extremely religious and eventually settles down into a new life. ''She probably has the biggest journey of any of the characters,'' Best says.
The play is a drama, but there is a lot of humour in the interactions of the characters. Although men are discussed, there are no male characters in the play and Best is happy to be doing a play with an all-female cast. Such plays are not easy to find, although this one was written by a man. She doesn't see a problem with this.
''A thing that always irritates me is when people say, 'They [men] don't know how to write for women.' We're all essentially the same.''
It's the characters that matter, she says, and, in this, Steel Magnolias has come up a winner, not just onstage, for the women in the cast have bonded.
''They've become very close,'' Best says.
They spent the first period of rehearsal before Christmas working on the text, which helped the cast members get into their characters and get to know each other better. Vickery and Braybrook are new to Canberra theatre, but they have quickly become part of the group.
''It's been wonderful watching that happen, creating a little family of friends.''
This is Crane's second time performing in Steel Magnolias. In the 1994 repertory society production directed by Walter Learning, she played Clairee. This time she plays Ouiser, the town curmudgeon, who complains about her two ex-husbands and three ungrateful children.
''She's great fun,'' Crane says.
''The one thing she does love is her dog.''
But she is also a good friend.
Crane says the characters in Steel Magnolias could easily descend into stereotypes - the funny old lady, the wise old lady and so on - but instead Harling has created very real, three-dimensional characters.
Crane is happy to be playing a different role from last time. She has repeated parts before and says there is always a danger of ''carrying baggage over''. Although she enjoyed working with Learning and Best, having a female director has given the play a more intimate feeling.
Men love the play as much as women, she says. ''It's probably one of the few ways they can find out what goes in a hairdressing salon.''
One of the unusual aspects of the show is that, given its setting, onstage hairstyling is a necessary part of the action. Longtime Canberra hairdresser and performer Charles Oliver has helped source the necessary equipment and is instructing the cast in the intricacies of his trade.
''Two of the girls have to actually do hair on stage,'' he says.
He has been giving lessons in setting hair up in rollers, washing and drying - ''It's as real as we can do''. He also found wigs for the characters to wear (these can't be worked on by the actors).
It's all coming along well, he says. One challenge was Bradley's hair, which was too short for rollers, but there's still time before the show opens.
''We're hoping it will grow long enough to fit them in.''
Steel Magnolias. By Robert Harling. Directed by Jordan Best. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3. Preview February 13 at 8pm then February 14-March 1, Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm with 2pm matinees February 22 and 23 and March 1. Tickets: full $40, concession $35, preview $30. Bookings: canberrarep.org.au or 6257 1950.