It seems magnolias are blossoming everywhere this season -- the staged versions of "Steel Magnolias," that is. Robert Harling's popular tear-jerker about a group of Southern women dealing with friendship, life and loss in a beauty salon is the hottest play around.

Just one year after Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre's definitive production, the play is back before local audiences with a satisfying effort from Prince William Little Theatre.

Separately, Woodbridge Senior High School will perform "Magnolias" this weekend.

Vienna Theatre Company will tackle the play in January, followed by Woodbridge's Castaways Repertory Theatre in May. Theater companies in the District and Gaithersburg just concluded runs, with another one set for Potomac in June.

And if that's not enough, the play will finally make its Broadway debut in the spring, with Delta Burke rumored to be taking a role.

The play, which was originally a short story, was successful off-Broadway before being made into the hit 1989 film, and the recent spate of productions around the country seems to have spurred interest in a Broadway mounting. So why all the interest in a simple ensemble play that veers dangerously close to melodrama? Well, it's a perfectly contained story, plain and straightforward but with dialogue that snaps and crackles, a plot that combines both laughs and tears, and richly drawn characterizations. It's also physically uncomplicated to stage, requiring just one set and a small cast.

Of course, that cast needs to be composed of talented women (there are no male roles) and led by a director who has a keen grasp of pacing and ensemble dynamics. Prince William Little Theatre has both, as director Don Petersen's six magnolias hit not a single false note in the 21/2-hour story. The chemistry between the actors feels genuine and their conversations flow naturally, whether the subject is gossip or life-and-death matters.

The carport hairstyle salon owned by Truvy (Barbara D. Carpenter) is a clubhouse where women gather in a small Louisiana town. At the center of the story is Shelby (Meredith Ford), the spirited daughter of sensible M'Lynn (Carolyn Cameron). As the play begins, it's Shelby's wedding day and she's getting her hair done by the flamboyant Truvy. As several years pass, we follow Shelby through her early wedded life as she simultaneously copes with a serious illness and the rigors of motherhood, all as discussed by the women of the salon. That group includes the new "glamour technician," Annelle (Lolita Clayton), curmudgeonly Ouiser (Susy Moorstein) and local businesswoman Clairee (Benji Moon).

Ford provides a piquant portrait of Shelby, creating the sense that her strength is rooted in the stubborn streak she inherited from M'Lynn. It makes the slice-of-life we experience seem all the more genuine as Ford does not sugarcoat Shelby's basically selfish nature. Clayton smoothly negotiates Annelle's striking transformation from uncertain town newcomer to the most self-assured member of the sorority, while Moorstein provides steady comic relief as the feisty, eccentric Ouiser. Carpenter, Moon and Cameron are the backbone of the play, traversing the widest emotional ranges with pitch-perfect clarity and nimble switches that instantly take the audience from deep pathos to broad comedy.

Petersen avoids stereotyping. The women are recognizable character types, but he doesn't allow them to become caricatures, a subtle line that is never crossed. For instance, the southern accents provide the occasional comic flourish but are never clownlike.

The scenic design, credited to "the cast," makes effective use of the cavernous, flat-floored gymnasium-with-a-stage the troupe calls home. The set is mostly on the floor in front of the stage without backdrops, the chairs arranged in a semicircle around it. This draws the audience closer than is possible with the remote stage. The intimacy allows the actors to speak naturally, without having to worry about projecting their voices, adding to the cozy ambiance.

"Steel Magnolias," performed by Prince William Little Theatre, continues through Oct. 16 at George C. Round Elementary School, 10100 Hastings Dr., Manassas. Showtime Fridays and Saturdays is 8 p.m. For tickets or information, visit www.pwlt.org.