Amid Big Hair, a Southern Drama Unfolds

Teri Ralson and Van Rae Wood in Laguna Playhouse’s “Steel Magnolias,” through May 26.
Teri Ralson and Van Rae Wood in Laguna Playhouse’s “Steel Magnolias,” through May 26.

“I’m a complete moron when it comes to doing hair but I have to look as if I know what I am doing,” confessed Stephanie Zimbalist rehearsing for “Steel Magnolias,” currently at the Laguna Playhouse. Zimbalist, adding to her skill sets, embodies Truvy, the irrepressible owner of a beauty salon located in Chinquapin Parish, La.

None of the cast had ever tried their hand at hairdressing before but evidently rose to the occasion with the help of rehearsals involving real life equipment, not stand-in props, said Jenny Sullivan, the play’s director.

“It’s a bit of a bluff but great fun,” said Zimbalist, daughter of actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. She and co-worker Joanna Strapp managed to mimic the beauty business with aplomb by opening night.

“The play is a universal story of what friendship brings,” said Sullivan, who is working at the Playhouse for the first time. “We are an all-female cast and the bonding process is fantastic,” she said.

There was a time when getting their hair washed, set and teased was a weekly ritual, a chance for women to relax among like-minded friends, and in some places it still is.  “Big hair is still big in the South and it’s work-intensive,” remarked Sullivan.

Robert Harling wrote the play in the wake of the untimely death of his younger sister. True to life, the play contains poignant references to a woman’s passing, friends bonding through grief, and ultimately, the birth of new life. Its title refers to “ideal” Southern women who are still supposed to appear as delicate as magnolia blossoms on the outside but, forged by the vicissitudes of life, are tough as steel on the inside.

Zimbalist noted that, after having gone to school in Virginia and having friends all over the South, acquiring a Southern accent was not difficult but a precise process nonetheless. “Our location is in the northwest part of Louisiana and we needed to be specific. We don’t do a generic fake Southern accent like they do in parodies,” she said.

First produced off-Broadway in 1987 and on Broadway in 2005, the play served as the platform for a movie starring Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Sally Field and Daryl Hannah. The film features visible male characters that in the play are only alluded to.

Here, Elyse Mirto plays M’Lynn, Alyson Lindsay is Shelby, Joanna Strapp is Annelle, Von Rae Wood is Clairee and Teri Ralston plays Ouiser, the show’s lovable curmudgeon embodied in the film by MacLaine.

For Ralston, who was born in Colorado but grew up in Laguna Beach, performing at the Playhouse is a sentimental home coming, she said. After college in San Francisco, New York beckoned and her career rose meteorically after being cast in “Company” and “A Little Night Music” and working with Stephen Sondheim.

On May 20, she will revisit those early days and perform “Songs I’ve Grown Into,” from Roy Rogers to Sondheim at Laguna Beach’s No Square Theatre.

“The show is made up of songs that I am re-interpreting with a different understanding from the vantage point of a mature woman and performer,” she said.

Ralston also worked in Los Angeles and appeared in television shows such as “Married With Children” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.”  Taking a page from Tony Bennett, she said that she found that her heart remained in New York City and also in teaching. “When I teach I learn so much as an actress,” she said.

At the Playhouse, Ralston is reprising Ouizer (pronounced weezer), a character often described as a curmudgeon, but whom Ralston interprets as merely impatient. “I don’t think of myself as a curmudgeon but rather as profoundly lacking patience,” she said. “Sometimes now when I snap at someone during rehearsals or outside, I just say that Ouizer is coming out.”

As they laugh, gossip, fight, cajole and comfort each other in grief, the cast takes their audience onto a narrative and emotional roller coaster ride.

“The idea that everything takes place in such a small setting makes for a special intimacy and yet it’s never the same thing twice. It’s an adventure,” said Sullivan.



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