Steel Magnolias

The cast of Steel Magnolias 

As Steel Magnolias tours theatres, Angela Coffey meets playwright Robert Harling to find out the true story behind the 1980s script, and looks at how diabetes care has since come a long way.

Movies rarely represent people with diabetes, but when the condition is built into the plotline, the line between what is an accurate portrayal of diabetes and what is exaggerated for dramatic effect can sometimes become blurred.

Steel going strong

But it’s the movies – isn’t that meant to happen? The trouble is, diabetes, in all its forms, is often misunderstood, which can be frustrating when it’s thrust into the limelight and misinterpreted. So, should we be concerned about the portrayal of diabetes in Steel Magnolias?

Released in 1989, it is perhaps one of the most memorable films in which diabetes is portrayed. It is a story about the lives and friendships of six women in a small town in Louisiana, USA, which revolves around Shelby, who has Type 1 diabetes and suffers devastating consequences after the birth of her child.

Despite her mother worrying that her diabetes would give her problems when carrying a child, Shelby becomes pregnant. She gives birth to a baby boy but, a year later and after receiving a kidney donated by her mother, she dies. While this can make for uncomfortable viewing, it’s important to remember the advances in diabetes care since then.

The story is primarily about the strength and unbreakable bonds between the characters, which is told with humour and witty dialogue. And the diabetes plot isn’t there to create drama – the events are real.

A way of coping

Robert Harling, then an aspiring actor, penned Steel Magnolias as a short story in 1986, as a way of coping with the death of his 32-year-old sister, Susan, who had Type 1 diabetes. It developed into a play in 1987 and has since been performed worldwide in 25 different languages.

The hit movie adaptation starring Julia Roberts and Dolly Parton came two years later, and Robert was keen to include humour to cope with the seriousness of the storyline. He also insisted that viewers were given a real insight into what his family went through, and even cast some of the hospital staff who treated Susan to play their real-life roles. While the film involves many characters and locations, the play takes place with just the six females (see box, above right) and is set solely in Truvy’s beauty salon, where the women regularly meet.

So are all the characters based on real people? “Everyone is based on someone
I knew in my youth. The great joy is finding that every woman in town thinks one of the characters is based on them. But I’ll never tell…”, says Robert. “And, being theatre, every new production, every new cast makes it a fresh experience. It’s always exciting to see a new interpretation.”

Continue reading in part 2

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