Directing plays in Birmingham is becoming a habit for David McMahon.
His shows at the Virginia Samford Theatre have included Shakespeare (“Twelfth Night” and “The Taming of the Shrew”) and other classics such as “Tartuffe” and last year’s “The Glass Menagerie.”
McMahon, a Birmingham-Southern College graduate who lives in New York, is back again this season, this time with a modern Southern classic, the comedy/drama “Steel Magnolias.”
“Steel Magnolias” opens April 13 and runs through April 23. Written by Robert Harling, the 1987 play about a group of tight-knit female friends in Louisiana was turned into a 1989 movie starring Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis and Daryl Hannah.
McMahon’s production boasts an impressive Birmingham cast, including Celeste Burnum, Jan D. Hunter, Holly Dikeman, Flannery Whaley, Sara Burris and Melissa Bush Hallmark.
“I can’t imagine a stronger cast, anywhere,” McMahon says. “And to hear the play come out of the mouths of Southern actors is a gift. They fundamentally get these characters.”
“Steel Magnolias” is a staple of community and regional theaters, and there are reasons it has remained popular for nearly 40 years.
“First off, it’s genuinely funny and whip-smart,” McMahon says. “Secondly, it’s a unique story about women, about the power of community. Harling clearly adores these women, and that love springs forth from the play. … Stories about women get minimized and devalued in our culture. One of the reasons ‘Steel Magnolias’ endures is because it treats its characters with dignity and respect. It’s important for these stories to be told.”
McMahon has devoted his life to storytelling, first as an actor and now as a documentary filmmaker. In fact, it was while he was filming the Birmingham-based “Skanks,” a behind-the-scenes look at a production at Theatre Downtown, that he decided he wanted to come back to direct.
“I saw the gifted actors that Birmingham has and thought it would be a blast to do ‘Twelfth Night’ with them,” he says. “I proposed the idea to the great Cathy Rye Gilmore, and she was on board and gave me everything I needed. It was a blast, and I wanted to do more.”
At the time, Gilmore was executive director of VST, a position she held for more than two decades. She recently retired, and Philip Mann, whose parents, Suzanne and Jack Mann, worked for years with VST and other theater companies that came before it, was named executive director in January.
“I’m thrilled for the theater and for Birmingham,” McMahon says. “Philip is a dear friend, and both his life and career experience made him an ideal candidate to replace Cathy. Cathy has built such an incredible institution, and I’m pumped to see where Philip will take it next. The theater continues to be in great hands. Also, to know what that theater has meant to Philip and his family, his wonderful parents Jack and Suzanne, is icing on the cake.”
“Steel Magnolias,” at the Virginia Samford Theatre April 13-23.