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By Frankie Kujawa
Everyman Theatre celebrates the return to live, in-person theater with the iconic production of “Steel Magnolias.” Running through September 5th, Everyman’s first production of the 2021-2022 season follows six unique Southern women as they deal with life’s triumphs and tragedies set against the background of a northwestern Louisiana beauty parlor. Among the outstandingly wonderful cast is incomparable Beth Hylton, who plays M’Lynn in the production. Hylton recently shared about her character, the joys of this production and her excitement to return to live, in-person theatre.
“You know, what’s been so marvelous about this production is that we [at Everyman] really are a real community.” Hylton began. “For example, Helen [Hedman; (Ouiser)] is in the company. Nancy [Robinette; (Clairee)] is an actor we have worked with over and over again. Of course, Megan [Anderson; (Truvy)] and I have played every iteration of friends, frenemies, and sisters over the years. We literally walked into rehearsal, and all started crying. You know, the play takes place with a close-knit community of women and the play is happening with a real-life, close-knit community of women.” Hylton added, “It’s magical right now to be back in the theater but being together with this group gives it a bit of extra magic. I think that’s one of the things that makes Everyman so special. We are a real community of people who really do love each other and, I think, it really shows in the work.”
As M’Lynn, a role made iconic in the film version of “Steel Magnolias” by actress Sally Field, Hylton breathes new life into the character. “Of course, I know the movie. It’s impossible to be alive at my age and not know the movie really well. The play-version has definitely been in my circle in that I’ve either auditioned for it or passed on it for different reasons over the years. So, this play has been in my consciousness since I was a young, professional actor auditioning for the role of either Annelle or Shelby. But, for this production, I really had to put the movie out of my head and just tell the story from a truthful place of me.”
Hylton, who is originally from Southwestern Virginia, grew up among the storytelling and musical traditions of the Appalachian South, where she learned to love great stories and storytelling at an early age. “I’m from the South and from a very Southern family. I had an aunt who has passed, but she was really my role model for this production. She suffered a lot of loss over a short period of time. She was, in general, just such a classy lady. However, the way she dealt with her grief, and how even in her pain she loved the people around her through it was really kind like my model for M’Lynn.”
"The thing about theater is we tell stories that make us all one. I think that is imperative right now, and I’m just so grateful it’s coming back.” ~ Everyman Theatre's Beth Hylton
I obviously look different because I don't look like Sally Field," Hylton laughed. "I also can't say enough about David Burdick, our costume designer. He created a world for us to really perform. You know, this is a play that takes place in the ‘80’s, and in a lot of ways, is now a period play. [Burdick] and our sound designer did such an homage to the ‘80’s. We celebrated the color-block jumpsuits, the shoulder pads, and the big hair without making a joke about it.”
Coordinating this performance in the era of Covid presented a set of challenges. However, the performers and staff at Everyman rose to the occasion to make sure this performance was as safe as possible for all involved. “I really have to give another shout-out to Mandy (Amanda) Hall, who is the Director of Production at Everyman. She was able to get everyone in the company vaccinated on the cancelation line at the M&T Bank Stadium. So, everybody was able to get their vaccination, a little ahead of schedule, but not by much. However, it really meant a lot at the time. You know that extra month you had where you could take a deep breath was so valuable. So that’s another magic thing about Everyman Theatre – Mandy Hall.”
"When we arrived to begin work on this production it was like coming back to olden times.” Hylton continued, “This was, however, before the Delta [variant] had really surged and the numbers were up. But even back then, when we walked into the rehearsal rooms there were certainly people who had vulnerable people at home and kept their masks on and kept their distance. And of course, we respect what people need. But we were able to rehearse this whole piece without the mask. So, it was such a real gift after this really hard eighteen months of distance. Not only social distance, but obviously an emotional distance as well.”
Hylton added that as the Delta variant continues to surge Everyman is taking all precautions necessary to keep everyone healthy and safe. “Everyman is absolutely taking everything very seriously. We put our masks back on, now, when we’re not working. Even when we are moving in between rehearsals and things. We are able to have our masks off on-stage, but beyond that we’re masked. We’re all vaccinated. Everyone else in the building is masked. In Baltimore City, the mask mandate is obviously in place, but Everyman has been honoring that because they just saw how the numbers were going. And, in order to make everybody do their best work, they have to feel safe. So, it just felt really safe and really front-footed about being clear about what’s happening with this virus. And, also, making sure we get to do what we do. Staying healthy is how we keep performing.”
Now more than ever, agreed Hylton, theater is crucial in light of the circumstances facing the world today. “I think that making theater, right now, is imperative. When I say this, I’m not saying that theater is teaching us or scolding us, but the best thing about theater is sitting in a community of people and experiencing human emotion. And, when you do that, you recognize the oneness of humanity.”
Hylton added, “For me, I couldn’t wait to go back to the theater. I’ve been saying since last year, ‘I’ll put a mask on! I’ll go to the theater!’ That’s because really good theater teaches us how to be the best humans we can be. It’s not about scolding or pointing a finger. It’s just about elevating us all so that we all get to celebrate what is truly the most human about ourselves, and that we share it in common with other people. So being in a room of 250 people experiencing the same emotions that you’re experiencing and recognizing the same feelings. That is transcendent! I have missed it so much in this last year and a half that I might even start crying while taking about it.”
“The other thing,” Hylton continued, “is that I think in this world we have been so isolated. We’re so separated, and in our camps of ‘yay’ or ‘nay, and social media is dividing us further and further apart. The thing about theater is we tell stories that make us all one. I think that is imperative right now, and I’m just so grateful it’s coming back.”
For more information on Everyman Theatre's "Steel Magnolias" visit: everymantheatre.org/
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