‘All of life is an audition,” according to actor/director/singer Teri Ralston. For Ralston, who started her career at 12 in a play called Ghost in the Green Gown at the old Laguna Playhouse, auditions have been the central focus of her life. That and her Maltese dog, Lizzie, who died recently at the age of 13. But when we met at an outdoor café the other day, she introduced me to Cali, her new Maltese who, ironically, was born the day Lizzie died. “I took that as a sign,” she said as she cuddled this adorable little ball of fluff. “I have to have a little dog because I fly a lot, and in her carrier she just fits under the seat.” Ralston, who lives in New York, has flown back to her old stomping grounds in Laguna to play Ouiser in the Playhouse’s production of Steel Magnolias. “Ouiser is a tough cookie, always angry,” she explains. Known as the town curmudgeon, Ouiser says things like “I’m not crazy; I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years,” and “Don’t try to get on my good side; I no longer have one.” Steel Magnolias is a true story written by playwright/actor/director Robert Harling and deals with the ups and downs of a group of six women who get together each week at a beauty salon in the fictional Chinquapin Parish, in northwest Louisiana, to share gossip, advice, humor, and friendship. First produced in New York in 1987, the comedy-drama deals with the death of the playwright’s sister and the relationships between the women over a three-year span of time. Women whom he depicts as “delicate as magnolias but as tough as steel.” The play was made into a movie in 1989 with an all-star cast that included Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hanna, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts. The current play, opening this week at the Laguna Playhouse, features in addition to Teri Ralston, Elyse Mirto, Alyson Lindsay, Joanna Strapp, Von Rae Wood, and Stephanie Zimbalist. The production is directed by Jenny Sullivan, best known locally for the Geffen Playhouse production of Love, Loss and What I Wore!, and Wiesenthal-Nazi Hunter at Theater 40, and for the Rubicon Theatre’s productions in Ventura of Our Town, The Mystery of Irma Vep, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Rainmaker, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and others. At the Rubicon Sullivan also directed Wood and Zimbalist in Steel Magnolias in 2011. Zimbalist also has a long history with Ralston, having appeared with her in A Little Night Music at the South Coast Rep, where “she played my daughter,” Ralston says with a rueful smile. She notes that her friend Bonnie Franklin played Ouiser in the Rubicon production and that she (Ralston) is honored to be playing it in Laguna and is dedicating the show to Franklin. Ralston was in the original cast of A Little Night Music,. She also created the role of Jenny, “the pot-smoking wife” in Company on Broadway in 1970, and again in 1993 in a reunion concert. She also appeared in the U.S. national tour in 1971 and in London’s West End in 1972. She also toured for eight months in Stephen Schwartz’ musical The Baker’s Wife, which, sadly, closed on the road. But she notes that Schwartz had written the song “Chanson” for her in her role as Denise, the cabaret owner. Her involvement with Stephen Sondheim and his music has also continued over the years as she has appeared in, or directed, Side by Side by Sondheim, Into the Woods, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Sunday in the Park with George. She also played Sally in Follies at the San Jose Civic Light Opera. As a musical actor and cabaret singer, she appears regularly in clubs and she is included in seven original cast albums. Her first CD was titled “I’ve Gotta
Get Back to New York”, which she accomplished some six years ago. Nevertheless, she considers Laguna Beach, where she grew up and attended High School, her second home. “I’m thrilled to be back in Laguna,” she says, “it’s such a supportive community for the arts.” She credits her high school drama teacher, Joan Lee Woehler, for encouraging her to “follow her dreams,” and notes that Woehler “influenced lots of people in very personal ways.” Which may help to explain why Ralston became a teacher as well. Having graduated from San Francisco State (along with Jenny Sullivan and “all of the people at South Coast Rep,” she laughs), she finds teaching “as rewarding as performing.” She has taught musical theater and dramatic arts at UC Irvine and teaches voice privately now in New York in her apartment on the Upper East Side. “It keeps my voice in good shape,” she says, “and I really love it.” She also believes that “students have ‘that magical thing’“ and “the more you keep studying and growing, the better off you’ll be.” And flexibility is also important. She cites a production called Lunch that she played first in Beverly, Massachusetts, in a theater in the round, and then in Pittsburgh in a theater with a proscenium arch. “Everything was in a mess,” she says, “and we had no time for tech.” So when she came out for her “big 11 o’clock number” the moving set didn’t stop, but kept right on going, offstage right. Undeterred, she followed the scenery until it came to a stop and sang her number from there. She also tells of a set that was late in arriving and slammed into her on its way onstage, which resulted in her continuing her performance with two broken ribs. And then there was the performance of Company in Boston that was interrupted by a bomb scare. “The whole audience and the cast were herded out onto the street together,” she says, leaving the listener to imagine what that did for the “magic” of the play. As Ouiser, however, she delivers a cranky speech that couldn’t be more out of tune with her own sentiments about her profession. “I don’t see plays because I can nap at home for free,” she says. “I don’t see movies because they’re all trash and full of naked people. And I don’t read books because if they’re any good they’ll be made into a mini-series.” Having happily covered every aspect of show business in her long career, Teri Ralston could not disagree more vehemently with that statement. Steel Magnolias, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Opens May 4 at 7:30 pm. Tues.-Fri. 8 pm, Sat. 2 and 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. thru May 26. Additional performances Sun. May 5 and 12 at 7 pm and May 16 and 23 at 2. Tickets $35 -$65. 949.497-2787. www.lagunaplayhouse.com Photo: Teri Ralston and her Maltese, Cali Photo by Cynthia Citron Reprinted from the Los Angeles Stage Times, published May 3, 2013.