Playwright Robert Harling has set more female tongues to wagging on area stages lately than one would think possible. His 1987 all-female tear-jerker, "Steel Magnolias," has been the most frequently presented play by this region's theater companies recently, with hardly a break between one production ending and another one starting up.

The comedy-drama, which began life off-Broadway before becoming a hit film, finally made it to Broadway this spring. So maybe now the play can be given a rest. But if you're one of the few theatergoers who hasn't yet laughed or snuffled along with the gals at Truvy's hair salon in Chinquapin, La., you're in luck. Potomac Theatre Company is ending its season with a delicately performed production of "Steel Magnolias" that accents the estrogen-drenched story's strengths, diminishes its weaknesses and makes the play seem fresh again.

It's interesting that a play written by a man and directed here by another, Barry Hoffman, is so in touch with feminine characters. The heart of the play is female bonding, as a diverse group of southern women talk. And talk. Providing dramatic context is the affecting plight of a diabetic young woman who risks her life to have a child. That development was informed by an occurrence in Harling's own family, so it rings true. But it is still something of a mystery how he captured the nuances of female companionship that draw women to this play, while still managing to entertain the husbands they drag along.

Hoffman's casting is perfect; if you are familiar with the play, you will be able to name each character just by glancing at his actors. The six women also seem to have connected in some mysterious way that creates a palpable sense of comradeship. They keep things low-key and natural, allowing the story to breathe on its own without artificial theatrics, which avoids sappy melodrama in the dramatic second act. And it allows them to carefully negotiate their way around Harling's way-too-numerous aphorisms and one-liners that can give this play a superficial edge. Lines such as, "The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize" may be clever and cute, but others, such as, "'I'd rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special," can cause cringes if over-emphasized.

This is a true ensemble effort, but if one performer stands out, it is Annette Kalicki, who portrays Annelle, a troubled young woman with a slightly mysterious past who has just begun working in Truvy's shop. She has the plainest role, which may be why Kalicki's understated and nuanced performance in the second act, as Annelle comes into her own, is so moving. The dramatic center is firmly held by Katie Mazzola as sickly but engaging Shelby, and Elle Wilhite as her mother M'Lynn. Shelby is self-absorbed, but Mazzola's light touch keeps that from being annoying. Wilhite combines strength with the emotional vulnerability that comes from watching a child struggle to live so effectively that she is able to move many to actual tears simply by repeating the word "pink" late in the second act.

Jeanne Latner is effective as good-ol'-gal Truvy, ladling on just enough rural southern accent to give her various declarations a comedic tinge without veering into outright caricature. Dianne Bruce and Toni Carmine capture authentic personas, as well.

Hoffman's firm grasp of pacing results in a dynamic atmosphere in which the women can move the audience from tears to laughter in a matter of seconds. The troupe commands attention, even during the first half-hour when nothing much happens. By Act 2, things get intense and emotions rise, the effects of which can still be seen on audience faces as they head for the exits, one sign of a satisfying theatrical experience.

"Steel Magnolias" concludes this weekend, performed by Potomac Theatre Co. at the Blair Family Center for the Arts on the campus of the Bullis School, 10601 Falls Rd., Potomac. Showtime Friday and Saturday is 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2. For tickets, call 301-299-8571. For information, visit www.potomactheatreco.org.

In Potomac Theatre's "Steel Magnolias," Clairee (Dianne Bruce, seated) induces Annelle (Annette Kalicki) to prayer.