(Laguna Beach, CA) May, 2013 – Watching the Laguna Playhouse’s production of Steel Magnolias was very reminiscent of the theme song from the hit television series Cheers, most notably the following lines, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name/and they're always glad you came./You wanna be where you can see,/our troubles are all the same./You wanna be where everybody knows your name.” Singer/songwriter Gary Portnoy couldn’t have been more correct. There are certain public venues which somehow draws like-minded individuals together like a nurturing sanctuary. They share stories of past glories, gossip about outrageous misfortunes, and in many cases, bond over unforeseen tragedies. It can be a Boston bar (like the one in Cheers), an Arizona diner (like Mel’s Diner in Alice, from both the television series and the Martin Scorsese film the series was based on), a beachside coffeehouse (anywhere in Laguna Beach), or a Louisiana beauty shop where Robert Harling’s play takes place. And the occupants of this particular establishment do indeed share many laughs and many tears. In this character-driven production, the talented acting ensemble provides healthy doses of heart and soul.
At Truvy’s Beauty Shop, dramas are playing out left and right, whether they are of paramount importance or just simple mild annoyances. Hair stylist and owner Truvy (Stephanie Zimbalist) ponders if she will ever get her husband off the sofa and “reawaken” their deep-felt sense of romance they once had when they first got married. Her assistant Annelle (Joanna Strapp) worries if her drug-dealing, absentee husband will finally go to jail so she can continue on with her life. The matronly heiress Clairee (Von Rae Wood) is in search of a passion that gives her purpose, which includes football, owning a radio station, and traveling around the world. The young newlywed Shelby (Alyson Lindsay) wants to have a child, much to the concern of her overprotective mother M’Lynn (Elyse Mirto). And the ornery spinster Ouiser (Teri Ralston) is just...well...grumpy about everything—However, as she insists, she’s not crazy; she’s just been in a bad mood for the past forty years. But it is Shelby's unexpected pregnancy that serves as a catalyst which brings this group closer together with each passing day.
There is a lot of storytelling going on in Magnolias, with each character making their presence known in monologues that are oftentimes powerful and in some cases hilarious. And Jenny Sullivan’s crisp direction matches well with the performances by keeping the play going and maintaining the audience’s attention. Jim Prodger’s beautifully detailed set design captures the late 1980s with nostalgic care. But there is a disappointment regarding D Martyn Bookwalter’s lighting design. Although the set is well lit, the colors seem too hot and flat, not showing any kind of depth or balance to the set design with any of the cooler tones, like subtle blues and greens. If these cooler, softer colors are indeed present, the hot colors wash them completely out. Also, the exterior surrounding the beauty shop set is all dark, giving the impression that all the scenes are taking place at night (which they aren’t). This lack of “exterior lighting” or a daylight backdrop adds to the “flatness” of the set, missing any opportunity to enhance the Louisiana setting and flavor of the story even more.
But it’s the actors that drive this production's emotional punch. Zimbalist’s Truvy serves as the hub of the character wheel that composes Steel Magnolias. Her brassy and earthy nature is intertwined with a type of motherly tenderness and loyalty. She may not be the eldest of the group, but she is very well the wisest whose insights all of her friends hold in high regard. Mirto’s M’Lynn begins her incredible character transformation from being overbearing and domineering to exhibiting a type of pain that is shown in one of the most heartbreaking moments of the play. Her scenes with Lindsay’s Shelby (who phenomenally changes from being young and naive to displays of mature dignity) show a perfect mother/daughter chemistry. Strapp’s Annelle is adorable as her enthusiastic devotion to her Christian beliefs provide additional humor and especially poignancy to the story. And both Wood’s Clairee and Ralston’s Ouiser are the comic firecrackers who whip out biting verbal zingers at each other and the other players. Their timing is unmatched, which provides the final “hair styling touch” to the Laguna Playhouse’s production of Steel Magnolias.
Steel Magnolias opened April 30 and runs to May 26, 2013
606 Laguna Canyon Road
Laguna Beach, CA. 92651
Photos by Ed Krieger