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One of the most heartwarming and touching stories to hit stage and screen is now gracing the stage in Munster.

"Steel Magnolias" opens in previews today at Theatre at the Center. It officially opens Sunday and continues through March 25.

The show, directed by TATC's artistic director Linda Fortunato, is based on the original play by Robert Harling. Set in a Louisiana hair salon, the production tells the story of a mother and daughter and a close group of friends and their everyday interactions with the joys, heartbreaks, comic situations, tragic happenings and the strong bond of friendship in their lives.

"Steel Magnolias," which was a play first, was a hit on the big screen in 1989. The movie starred a stellar cast featuring Hollywood greats Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton and Daryl Hannah.

Theatre at the Center has brought together a cast of beloved and popular Chicagoland actresses for this run. Starring in the show are Cory Goodrich, Landree Fleming, Heidi Kettenring, Joslyn Yvonne Jones, Jeannie Affelder and Myesha-Tiara.

Kettenring, who portrays character Truvy, said she's happy to be back at Theatre at the Center. Kettenring has been seen at the Munster venue in plays such as "Annie Warbucks," "I Do! I Do!" and "Here's Love!"

"My first job at Theatre at the Center was in 1999 and it was a production of 'Steel Magnolias,'" Kettenring said. She said it's rewarding to work with "friend and colleague" Fortunato as director of the show.

"I respect her so much as a human being and a talented director," Kettenring said about Fortunato.

The story, she added, is a real stage classic. "The women (characters) are strong, vulnerable, funny and kind," she added. Kettenring said this is a "special time" to be in a show surrounded by a cast of "strong women characters lead by a woman director" while they tell a powerful story.

Kettenring, who is originally from Louisiana, said she remembers seeing the movie "Steel Magnolias." At that time, she said, she didn't know the story was actually a play first. And having grown up in Tennessee, she said Parton was a "big part" of her life. So, the fact Kettenring is playing the film role of Truvy that Parton played is special for her as well.

The cast features only women and takes place on only one set, which is the beauty parlor where the women all meet regularly.

Actress Landree Fleming, who stars as Shelby, also is looking forward to bringing this theatrical gem to audiences at TATC. Fleming's other work at Theatre at the Center has included the shows "Godspell" and "The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee."

"I'm having a wonderful time (working on this show)," Fleming said. "I think the story itself is a really beautiful story about women and their relationships with one another.

"And there's something special about a show with only women. I think women in and of themselves are just powerful."

The actress said she also likes that they're working with females of different generations.

Fleming never has seen the movie "Steel Magnolias." "It was a purposeful choice not to watch it," she said, adding she didn't want it to influence her portrayal of character Shelby.

About Shelby, Fleming said, "Shelby's really fun and a little bit snappier than I am. She has a really big heart and a lot of enthusiasm."

Kettenring hopes audiences seeing this production take away "a renewed sense of the power of community." She said she also hopes people see how important it is to "help other people" and to let others help you.

Fleming said she hopes the show inspires people to take a look at the "close relationships" in their lives and "really value them and savor them and that they tell the people in their lives they love them."

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Features reporter

Eloise is A&E Editor and a food, entertainment and features writer for The Times, subjects she has covered for over two decades in and around the Region. She was the youngest of eight in a Chicago household filled with fantastic cooks and artists.