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Steel Magnolias

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Provoked by the real-life death of his younger sister, Susan Harling Robinson, Robert Harling’s play, Steel Magnolias, premiered in 1987 at Off-Broadway’s WPA Theatre. Since then, this enduring melodramady has gone through several iterations, onstage (both in the U.S. and England), on film (1989), and twice on television – once in 1990 as a two-hour pilot for a possible run as a regular TV series – and, most recently, a 2012 Lifetime TV event, featuring an African-American cast led by Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard, and Phylicia Rashad.

Now this perennial tearjerker, an emotional treasure trove for actresses on the regional and community theater circuit, is in production at the Laguna Playhouse, through May 26. Languidly directed by Jenny Sullivan, this staging of Magnolias is steeped in high production values (Jim Prodger, scenic designer; D Martyn Bookwalter, lighting; Heidi Leigh Hanson, costumes; Corinne Carrillo, sound), while displaying a capable cast of a half-dozen players.

The staging unfolds over a period of two years in the latter days of the 1980s at a beauty salon in Louisiana. The shop is eponymously named for its owner, Truvy (Stephanie Zimbalist in an earthy and credible characterization). The styling salon is more than a place to have one’s hair done, however. Like barbershops, barrooms, and church confessionals, Truvy’s has become a place where people (in this case, women) feel free to let their hair down while opening their hearts and speaking their minds.

Among the shop’s regulars are Clairee (a winning comedic portrayal by Von Rae Wood), Ouiser (the crisply curmudgeonly Teri Ralston, and M’Lynn (an emotionally resonate Elyse Mirto). Shelby (a vulnerable Alyson Lindsay) is M’Lynn’s daughter. As the story begins, Shelby’s about to be married and is at Truvy’s to have her hair styled for the coming nuptials. Shelby, though, has a dire health condition: Type 1 diabetes. Her decision to give birth, against the advice of physicians and much to the chagrin of mother M’Lynn, puts Shelby’s life in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Annelle (Joanna Strapp in a challenging role) is a new stylist at Truvy’s who has mysterious background and overly-religious tendencies.

These are the loosely-aligned ingredients of this womanly play. And while the cinematic and TV versions of the story are able to build drama by putting the focus on the emotionality of love, loss, and female bonding through close-ups and other camera techniques, this live staging of Magnolias depends on the flesh and force of the six performers. Either it’ll gel or it won’t.  In this two-hour Laguna staging, better timing would provide for fewer longueurs. Also, some cutting of Harling’s wordy script is in order. Just be certain to leave in jewels such as Clairee’s line, “The only difference between us and the animals is our ability to accessorize.”

Steel Magnolias continues at the Laguna Playhouse through May 26. The theater is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Evening performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.  For reservations, call (949) 497-2787. For online ticketing and further information, visit



Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.