Gay favorite 'Steel Magnolias' to come to Tennessee Rep

by Pat Patrick

As we all know, it is required by law that all gay men must be able quote a minimum of 70 percent of the movie Steel Magnolias before receiving a membership card. And many of us can do the whole damn thing.

While she’s not a card-carrying gay man just yet, Martha Wilkinson will soon be meeting that requirement. In Tennessee Rep’s upcoming production of the quintessentially Southern play, she will tackle the role of Truvy. Tennessee Rep’s production marks her third production of Steel Magnolias, having played the roles of Shelby and M’Lynn in the past.

When asked about playing Truvy, Wilkinson responds, “Well, I've never played Truvy before so I am very excited to ’do hair!’ The cast is, of course, completely different, and I am so excited to share the stage with all these talented women… and I am thrilled to have Tennessee Rep Resident Scenic Designer Gary Hoff designing ‘my shop.’

Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s production of Steel Magnolias runs Oct. 3 - 24 at TPAC’s Johnson Theater.

“I think every actress loves performing in Steel Magnolias. Being Southern I love the idea of being part of a cast full of strong, caring, courageous Southern gals… it’s my heritage!”

No one else was even considered for the role. It was intended that Tennessee Rep’s production celebrate 25 years of professional theatre by bringing together on the stage women who have been featured throughout the history of the organization. The cast has appeared in a combined 70 Tennessee Rep productions since 1985.

Wilkinson has 15 of those to her credit. And with her empathetic soul, infectious laugh, and more talent than you can shake a stick at, Wilkinson makes the ideal Truvy.

“Martha is a kind of dream actor for a director,” says Tennessee Rep Producing Artistic Director René D. Copeland. “She is so talented—she has great instincts, a great sense of humor, and when she is on stage she’s totally in control of it… and yet she brings a genuine openness in response to direction and to her fellow actors on stage. Martha is one of those actors who really brings everyone on stage along with her.

“I thought of her for Truvy immediately because of the need to have someone with a warm, comfortable strength combined with a sense of humor and great comic timing,” Copeland continues. “What I am going for in every casting choice for this show is the ability to bring a living, breathing human being to life; I’m not at all interested in doing this play with caricatures rather than humans. FUNNY humans, but humans nonetheless. I knew that Martha would be able to find the heart of Truvy--the part of her that really listens to her friends and supports them through joy and sorrow--while still nailing the comedy of it.

“We’re in rehearsals now, and let’s just say I love being right,” Copeland concludes.

Wilkinson backs up Copeland’s praise on stage. Recently named “Best Local Actress” in the Tennessean’s “Toast of Music City Awards” for her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett in Tennessee Rep’s sold out production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Wilkinson has nine local acting awards to her credit. (And in case you missed her in Sweeney Todd, Angela Lansbury and Patti Lupone could take notes on how to portray Mrs. L; she was damn flawless…. but I digress.)

In a recent TV interview, Wilkinson admitted with a wink that when it comes to playing Truvy, she had some big shoes (“shoes” in air quotes, that is) to fill. When asked if she was a little daunted to tackle the role made famous by legend and uber-gay icon Dolly Parton, Wilkinson says, “Well, of course I am… it is Dolly for God’s sake!

“But I can't let that influence me. I never, ever watch the movie or any recording of shows before I do them. Yes, I'll listen to a soundtrack to get the gist of a song or score but I will not listen to it repeatedly. I am kind of a sponge, and I will unintentionally pick up on ‘-isms’ of another actress. I want the character to be from within me and through my own uninfluenced discovery, not something I mimic.

“I will approach Truvy as I do any other role I honestly and true to the playwright’s intentions as I can. If what I do comes off as ‘like Dolly’ then so be it. After all, we're just both FABULOUS actresses,” she concludes with a hearty laugh.

As for the special place that Steel Magnolias holds in the hearts of gay men, Wilkinson simply says with a sly grin that we’ll have to ask “Mark, Rick, or Steve.”

 In addition to Wilkinson, the talent-rich cast features Brooke Bryant, Ruth Cordell, Mary Jane Harvill, Denice Hicks, and Marin Miller.

Ticket information is available at calling 782-4040, by visiting the TPAC box offices (downtown or at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in the Mall at Green Hills), or by visiting

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