When she makes her Penobscot Theatre debut this Wednesday, Irene Dennis will be in the role she was born to play — Truvy, owner of the beauty parlor in “Steel Magnolias.”

Truvy’s salon is where all the play’s characters go to air their troubles, and be among friends, and while Dennis doesn’t own a beauty parlor herself, she does know a thing or two about hair.

“As a girl, my grandmother taught me to do her hair. Even now, I still go down to visit her and do her hair,” said Dennis, a Bangor resident. “I do hair for shows. I’m not licensed, and I don’t get paid for it, but I’ve always done hair. It’s a very intimate thing, to place your hair in the hands of someone else. There’s a lot of trust involved. It’s therapeutic.”

Dennis has not only some of the same professional experience that her character Truvy does, she also has a similar physical appearance, with her fabulous, blown-out black hair and snappy outfits.

“She came to auditions with her hair all done up, wearing a fiery red dress,” said director Nathan Halvorson. “I’d never met her before. It was amazing. I said, ‘That’s Truvy.’”

Halvorson has assembled a six-person cast of dynamic, powerful women — all local, and all very different. The stories of Truvy, M’Lynn, Shelby, Annelle, Ouiser and Clairee are all centered on one place: Truvy’s beauty parlor. On the surface, it’s no more than some hair dryers and sinks in a room in the Chinquapin, La., home she shares with her deadbeat husband; in reality, it’s a kind of sacred space where all six women go to let off some steam.

“There’s so much safeness in that room,” said Halvorson. “The beauty parlor is kind of a sacred space. There are none of those societal rules in there. They can literally let their hair down.”

“The salon itself is kind of a character in the play,” said Jeri Misler, who plays M’Lynn, mother to Shelby. “It’s a room in Truvy’s house. It’s a little safe place where they can complain about their husbands and other people and their lives in general.”

The play itself is quite different from the popular 1989 movie adaptation, starring Dolly Parton, Sally Field and Julia Roberts. The big difference? There are no men in the play. Not one. The entire play is just six women in one beauty parlor in northern Louisiana.

“It’s essentially about the energy between women, and the kinds of connections they can only get from each other,” said Halvorson. “That’s what the play is really all about, as opposed to the movie. People ask me, ‘Well, who’s playing Jackson?’ and I keep telling them that in the play, there are no men. None at all. They talk about them, and they are present on the sidelines, but we never actually see them.”

Female relationships and feminine energy are the central focus of “Steel Magnolias.” Lacey Martin, who plays the dangerously diabetic Southern belle Shelby, found a personal connection to the characters when she was growing up, watching the movie with her mother and sister.

“I grew up watching it,” said Martin. “I watched it with my mom and sister all the time, as a kid. I think we identified. We all understood what was going on. My sister is diabetic, so I have a very personal connection to it as well.”

One of the challenges of a play like “Steel” is the fact that audience members often have a preconceived notion about the characters because of the movie. Fortunately, in the hands of the gifted actresses in the PTC production, there isn’t too much crossover. Christie Robinson’s portrayal of Annelle makes her a damaged, frightened young woman. Marcia Douglas’ Ouiser is a tornado of personality, who tells it like it is, while Alison Cox’s Clairee is elegant, truthful and a little lonely.

“I thought it was interesting that on the posters, the character names are bigger than our names,” said Misler. “I think that speaks to how iconic and powerful these characters are. People know and love them.”

Most women can recognize the big themes at play in “Steel” — from wives relating to their husbands, to mothers trying to connect with their daughters. And, most especially, how women support one another as friends.

“It’s about everything women go through — friendship, marriage, divorce, life changes. For me, as a mom, I understand the feelings that M’Lynn has in regards to her daughter. It’s such a strong sensation, fearing for your child’s safety,” said Misler. “It’s very gut-wrenching, in a lot of ways. I think most women can relate to some aspect of this play.”

“Steel Magnolias” opens in previews at 7 p.m. Wednesday. It runs three weekends, through Sept. 20, at the Bangor Opera House. For a full schedule, visit www.penobscottheatre.org. Tickets can be purchased online, or at the box office; call 942-3333.

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Penobscot Theatre Company’s 36th Season

The Penobscot Theatre kicks off its 36th season with Wednesday night’s preview performance of “Steel Magnolias.” For the first time, the PTC has extended the runs for each of its six productions for the season. Instead of two weeks, there will be three weeks of shows.

“You know, it’s funny that in the age of such amazing technology, word of mouth is the theater’s best friend,” said Scott R.C. Levy, producing artistic director for the PTC. “People hear about the shows in the second week or so, and then they close, so they don’t get to go. We can attract the largest audience possible if we go three weeks instead of just two.”

The 2009-2010 season features a very diverse array of shows — from crowd favorites like “A Christmas Carol” and “Steel Magnolias,” to more contemporary, edgier shows like Steve Martin’s “The Underpants” and the rock cabaret extravaganza “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

“We decided on the season in the heat of the economic downtown. Money was on our minds, definitely,” said Levy. “I needed to look at shows that had smaller casts, and therefore smaller budgets, but also had some audience built into it. I think ‘Steel’ will bring in people that might not normally come to the theater, while a show like ‘Hedwig’ may prove to bring our largest college-age crowd yet.”

Rounding out the lineup is “Forever Plaid,” a musical about the doo-wop groups of the 1950s and ’60s, and “Spunk,” an adaptation of three Zora Neale Hurston stories, that will be staged during Black History Month in February.

A full schedule of all Penobscot Theatre productions can be found at www.penobscottheatre.org.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.