Dani Dryer, left, and Amy Almquist in "Steel Magnolias." Says director Fred Rodriguez: "The play is funny, and it's got its sad moments. The funny makes it easier to deal with the sad parts."

COURTESY OF PATRICK MCARDLE / ARIZONA ONSTAGE

Fred Rodriguez knows how to get his actors in the mood:

Rehearse at a hair salon.

Rodriguez is directing Arizona Onstage Productions' "Steel Magnolias," which is set in, of course, a hair salon.

"I work for Spiral Salon, and the owner has let us rehearse there," Rodriguez explains.

"It's been helpful and easy for the actors to be in the salon and learn updos from stylists."

Ah, but don't expect to catch the play there.

"Unfortunately, there's no room for an audience at the salon," Rodriguez says, a bit woefully.

Onstage or in salon, "Steel Magnolias" is a play designed to capture your heart and make you laugh.

"The play is funny, and it's got its sad moments," Rodriguez says. "The funny makes it easier to deal with the sad parts."

It was grief that pushed playwright Robert Harling to pen "Steel Magnolias" - his sister, Susan, a diabetic with whom he was very close, had died. It started as a short story, but Harling stretched it out to a full-length play to allow the characters and stories to breathe more fully.

It opened off-Broadway in March 1987, and by June of that year it had transferred to Broadway and ran until 1990.

It has been produced around the world, and in 1989 it became a hit movie.

Here's why: The story is about six women from the fictional town of Natchitoches, La. They meet weekly at Truvy's beauty salon. They argue, they love, they support and they attack - they are, in short, strong and good friends.

We watch as these women embrace one another's joys and share their griefs.

They are Southern, strong, fragile, funny and full of heart.

"Friends like that make us better people," said Rodriguez.

"We need people in our lives to balance us, good and bad. To look at you and tell you what's wrong, and what's not wrong. The women at Truvy's are like a support group - they are there to help each other."

These women and their relationships are what Rodriguez loves about the play.

"I love the whole heart of the show," he says.

"It's about community, friends, how, though you aren't family, you become family."

If you go

• What: Arizona Onstage Productions' "Steel Magnolias."

• By: Robert Harling.

• Director: Fred Rodriguez.

• When: Preview is 7:30 p.m. today; regular performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through May 14.

• Where: The Temple of Music and Art Cabaret Theatre, 330 S. Scott Ave.

• Tickets: Preview, $18; $27.50 for regular performances. Discounts available.

• Reservations, information: 1-800-838-3006, www.arizonaonstage.org or www.brownpapertickets.com

• Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.

• Cast: Amy Almquist; Dani Dryer; Roxanne Harley; Lucille Petty; Jacinda Swinehart; and Martie van der Voort.