Twelfth Night and Steel Magnolias have histories of popular and critically successful productions here, but also promise new versions at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Omaha Community Playhouse. For UNO’s Cindy Melby Phaneuf, it’s a third time directing the Shakespearean comedy, but the first crack at doing it with 16 collegians, all but four virgins at performing the bard. For Amy Lane, the Playhouse resident director, it’s her first time in charge of the play which she originally encountered as the film with Sally Fields as M’Lynn and Julia Roberts as diabetic daughter Shelby. “I saw Steel Magnolias with my grandmother shortly after my grandfather died,” Lane recalled. “She was really sobbing; the story has a special place in my heart.” UNO and Playhouse connections include the fact that Lane has directed plays in both theaters; and her Ouiser, the funniest of M’Lynn’s friends, is Charleen Willoughby, a UNO grad who played the same role in the school’s production. When the Playhouse last presented the drama in 1990, Carl Beck directed a cast with his wife Susie as Truvy, the beauty salon operator. And Phaneuf’s Twelfth Night cast includes Ben Beck, son of Playhouse artistic director Carl Beck and associate director Susie Baer Collins. He plays Orsini, the lovesick Duke who opens the comedy with a mood-setting speech that begins, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Beck is one of four cast members not new to Shakespeare. The most common advice the players hear from their director is “Act on the lines, not in between them.” Phaneuf also urges the students to “start by understanding” Shakespeare’s language, “then find ways to personalize it.” Her two previous productions of the play included professional actors for the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival, and her experience with the great playwright includes dozens of his works. She has emphasized the love of life in her earlier versions of Twelfth Night , but this time will focus on “the fragility of life.” And that theme will be manifested in another treatment that will make this play different. Designer Steven L. Williams will use light and over two miles of black iridescent fabric imported from China “to create a transformative wonderland,” according to Kathleen Lawler, UNO theater publicist. Phaneuf stressed the fabric’s changeable qualities, illustrating “how quickly you can go from life to death.” Lawler says the fabric can “produce images akin to the Northern Lights,” and can transport the audience from “a pitch black house to the heart of a thunderstorm and back, all with the click of a button.” For Steel Magnolias , scenic designer Jim Othuse had a a more mundane problem: understanding the intricacies of its setting, a home beauty salon. He told Amy Lane, “I’m going to rely on you” and other women familiar with the likes of Truvy’s salon. And Katie Kresha, who plays Shelby, has relied on a fellow cast member to better understand the character’s low blood sugar problems. “Jennifer McGill, who plays Annelle, has Type I diabetes, so she worked with Katie,” Ms. Lane explained. The director has kept Steel Magnolias in its original 1980s setting, but chose to avoid hairdos or costuming by Georgiann Regan that would lampoon that decade’s style. Lane’s cast includes the oft-honored Connie Lee as Truvy, veteran actress Kay Clark as Clairee and Brenda Ehrhart, returning to the Playhouse after about a 15-year hiatus, as M’Lynn. Phaneuf’s cast for Twelfth Night includes the oft-featured Bill Grennan as Sebastian, Erica DeBoer as his shipwrecked sister Viola, Margaret Wilson as Olivia and Amy Schweid as Maria. The low comedy comes from Raydell Cordell III as Sir Toby Belch and Nathan McCarty as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Several cast members learned to play instruments for their roles. Scotty Pace, as Feste the musical clown, bought a mandolin, but couldn’t afford the case, so he brought it to rehearsals in a baby blanket. Twelfth Night runs April 13-16, 20-23, at 7:30 p.m., presented by UNO Theatre in the Weber Fine Arts Building, 6001 Dodge St. Tickets are $15, $10 seniors, $5 students, free to UNO students. Call 402.554.2406. Steel Magnolias runs April 15-May 8, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, at the Omaha Community Playhouse, Howard and Rhonda Hawks Mainstage, 6915 Cass St. Tickets are $35, $21 students, lower prices for groups. Call 402.553.0800.

Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

Leave a comment