By Sharon Cotliar
Updated May 23, 2005 12:00 PM

The night Steel Magnolias opened on Broadway, Delta Burke was on her way backstage to get ready when she heard her costar Rebecca Gayheart gasp. Bouquets and balloons spilled out of Gayheart’s tiny dressing room, “so many beautiful flowers, out into the hallway,” says Burke. “Rebecca looked like a 4-year-old who had just seen what Santa left.”

To Gayheart, a former Noxzema girl and Beverly Hills, 90210 alum, the moment meant much more than just her Broadway debut. Her return to the spotlight comes nearly four years after she was behind the wheel in a car accident that killed a 9-year-old boy in Los Angeles. “It’s something that is with me every day, and it will be for the rest of my life,” says Gayheart, 32. The turmoil of the accident left her emotionally “shut down” at first, she says, and for a while she doubted she would ever work as an actress again. But therapy—and her marriage last fall to actor Eric Dane—helped her feel ready to step onstage in Steel Magnolias as Shelby Latcherie, the resilient southern belle Julia Roberts played in the 1989 movie. “This role,” she says, “feels like a fresh start.”

Sitting in a downtown Manhattan cafe, Gayheart chokes up when she speaks of the aftermath of June 13, 2001. At 2:40 p.m. that day, she was driving through central L.A. in a borrowed Jeep Grand Cherokee when she struck third grader Jorge Cruz Jr. as he was crossing the street on his way home from school. Cruz died the next day at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. According to police reports, several cars had stopped for Cruz when Gayheart pulled into the left lane to pass them and hit the boy. Gayheart declines to discuss the specifics of the accident; in 2002 she settled a wrongful death suit filed by the boy’s parents, Silvia Martinez and Jorge Cruz. Though she paid for the boy’s funeral, she no longer has contact with his family. “After a certain point, I think they didn’t want to have contact with me, which I completely understand,” she says. “I can’t imagine how they feel. They are in my prayers every day.”

She describes the first few years after the accident as a “terrible, terrible time. I couldn’t really function for a while.” She had trouble sleeping and eating; she lost weight. “I just got to a point where I realized I needed help. I got into therapy. I’ve been in therapy since then. It’s really been helpful.” She got behind the wheel of a car for the first time since the accident recently; some days she still can’t bring herself to drive. “I don’t think anyone could sit and say they got over something like this. I just don’t think that’s possible. It hasn’t been for me.” Still, her friend and Scream 2 executive producer Kevin Williamson—who describes her as “good to the core”—says he has watched her “come back to life on the inside. Step by step she started rebuilding.”

Finding love helped. As she took on a few small TV roles, Gayheart kept bumping into Dane (Gideon’s Crossing and Charmed), 32. Finally, in January 2004, he asked her out. “I feel lucky I found him,” she says. “He definitely appeared in my life at the right time.” The couple decided to get married over a cozy sushi dinner last October. “We got the last flight to Vegas [that night],” Gayheart says. They wed in a modest chapel with the airport cabbie serving as best man: “It wasn’t a fancy, Elvis-cool chapel.”

Though it wasn’t the big white wedding she had imagined, it was true to Gayheart’s humble beginnings. The daughter of a coal miner, Curtis Wayne, 61, and Floneva, 57 and a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman, in Pine Top, Ky., Gayheart realized she wanted to become an actress at age 8 when she saw—appropriately—the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. After her turns on 90210 (as Luke Perry’s ill-fated bride in the 1995 season) and movies such as Scream 2 and Urban Legend, Steel Magnolias is “a dream come true” for the small-town southern girl Delta Burke calls “heart-breakingly sweet.” Says her friend Kevin Williamson: “I’ve seen her play vixens, but to see her play someone more in line with where her heart is, I was very touched. She might have been a wounded bird at one time. But she is up again.”