“How is that baby ever going to understand how wonderful his mother was? How will he ever know what she went through for him?”
— M’Lynn Eatenton, “Steel Magnolias”
A note from author Robert Harling under the cast of character descriptions in the play “Steel Magnolias” reads: “The women in this play are witty, intelligent, and above all, real characters. They in no way, shape or form are meant to be portrayed as cartoons or caricatures.”
Robert Harling was serious. Shelby Eatenton is real. I don’t mean real in the metaphysical way in that she’s real because I was one of the very fortunate women to bring her to life. Or the countless other women who have proceeded me in bringing her to life. I mean, and he means, she was a real young woman who really lived, and who really died.
She was his sister, Susan Harling Robinson.
Harling was heart-broken at the gaping hole her death left in his family. As a way to cope, he listened to his friends and sat down to write about the last three years of his best friend and sister’s life. After ten days of cathartic heartbreak, the play “Steel Magnolias” was born.
When I was first cast in this show in March of 2013, I had no idea that she had really existed. I thought this was just a quaint little show about a group of Southern women who laughed and loved and cried through tragedy and triumph. I, like most of America, had seen and loved the movie. I thought that’s all it was; just a play. Just a movie. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
This is a story about a brother who loved his sister so much that he couldn’t bear the thought of her legacy ending with her death. It’s a story about a mother who fought tooth and nail with her stubborn, vivacious daughter to live a quiet, safe life. A long life. A woman who, even as she lost the battle, stayed by her daughter’s side, holding her, loving her and supporting her as she faded away.
It’s a story about a young woman who knew her body, knew the dangers of her diabetes, and who looked into immortality and knew, above all, that she wanted a child. That she would give anything, even her life’s breath, to make that dream come true. Who, when faced with the expected and inevitable consequences of her decision stood strong and said, “If this is the price I have to pay, then I will pay it. I can handle it.”
Robert Harling has said in interviews that his sister was the “fixer” in the family–and her one regret was that she was never able to help her brother become the famous playwright she knew he could be. How bittersweet that she was able to fix even this.
Harling wrote a love letter to his sister, his family, and the ladies in his hometown when he wrote “Steel Magnolias.” Susan was 33 when she passed away, the same age I was when we performed in July of 2013, but through him and his words, she has lived on.
For me, becoming Shelby helped me realize that not all heroes are in the history books. They are also living and dying in their every day lives in small towns across America. These women (and men) may not be well-known by us, but they are well-loved by those in their lives.
The real M’Lynn will never have to look at baby Jack, Jr. (named Robert in real life) and bemoan that he would never understand what she went through to have him. We all know what she went through.
This normal, spunky, and remarkable young woman lived and loved, and will continue to live and love as long as “Steel Magnolias” is being performed.
For me, becoming Shelby Eatenton was one of the most enriching, emotional and powerful experiences in my theatrical career. I made some wonderful, lasting friends from that show, and I found a connection with my new theatre Mama in my M’Lynn.
How wonderful to know Susan is still fixing things and bringing people together.
To Susan Harling Robinson–may we all live as vivaciously as you did during your thirty minutes of wonderful on this earth.