By  on March 22, 2005

NEW YORK — When Lily Rabe was a child, her parents — the playwright David Rabe and the actress Jill Clayburgh — told her she could do anything she wanted as an adult, except become a writer or an actress. “Unfortunately,” says Rabe, “those were the only two things I was good at.” By 17, she’d applied to Northwestern’s theater program.

Five years later she’s making her Broadway debut in a revival of “Steel Magnolias,” currently in previews at the Lyceum Theatre, as Annelle Dupuy Desoto, a 19-year-old bride who moves to a small town in Louisiana and takes a job in Truvy Jones’ beauty parlor. Over the course of the play, she grows from a painfully self-conscious girl into a self-assured, if somewhat pious, born-again Christian.

Though a less-dedicated actress might have just rented the 1989 hit film version (Daryl Hannah played her role) Rabe actually did extensive research, in part because the similarities between her and her character weren’t exactly jumping off the page. She never goes to church (except to attend weddings and funerals) or to beauty parlors (she normally gets her hair cut at Bumble and bumble). So she began visiting Baptist churches all over New York and asked the salon in her hometown of Lakeville, Conn., if she could come watch the hairstylists at work.

“I love having my hair done,” Rabe says. “But the places [in New York] are always big and full and everyone has their magazine. Then you got to a beauty parlor in Connecticut or in the South and the sense of community is just amazing. They’re telling stories across the room, asking one another ‘How was so and so’s graduation’ and ‘Did you hear so and so’s pregnant.’ Then someone tells a joke and the whole room starts laughing.”

“Steel Magnolias” is filled with saucy one liners, but Rabe is not acting the part with ironic detachment — getting a laugh is not her primary intention. “It’s easy to make a joke of Annelle. To say, ‘Oh, she’s this big mess, and she can’t even do hair.’ And then she becomes not a real person, but a caricature,” says Rabe.Her colleagues have been impressed, to say the least.

“She is going to be a huge star,” says the production’s director Jason Moore. Adds Bobby H. Grayson who is in charge of hair design and supervision for the show and taught Rabe how to use everything from curlers to a hair dryer: “She’s a quick study because she’s a complete perfectionist. She wants to do everything exactly right. I would trust her with my hair.” 

Meanwhile, her parents have made a quick transition to chief cheerleaders. In 2001 Rabe played a small roll opposite her mother in “Never Again.” (Rabe also had a bit part in “Mona Lisa Smile” while in college.) Clayburgh saw the show twice last week and was the first to give her daughter a standing ovation.

And if Rabe is nervous about what comes next, she doesn’t show it. “If you’re a very shakeable person, you could find yourself a little lost being an actress,” she adds. “But if you have a core and you know who you are and you know what you want then it all sort of unfolds. I feel very lucky about what’s happened thus far. I’m just having a great time.”

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