Patti Yasutake Returns to ‘Steel Magnolias’ for National Tour

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Patti Yasutake (Clairee) and Elisa Bocanegra (Truvy) after the Feb. 2 performance of “Steel Magnolias” at Haugh Performing Arts Center, Citrus College. The armadillo is a reference to the armadillo cake in the play. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

LA Theatre Works’ traveling production of Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias” — a comedy/drama about six women in Chinquapin, La., facing life’s ups and downs together — makes a stop at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Dr. in Palm Desert, on Monday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m.

Orginally a hit Off-Broadway show, the play reached a nationwide audience through the 1989 movie adaptation. Variations have included a TV movie with an African American cast in 2012 and an all-Asian version by L.A.’s East West Players in 2013.

Directed by Brian Kite, the LATW production is done like a radio show with the actresses standing side by side, facing the audience, speaking into microphones. There is no set but images are projected in the background.

The multiethnic cast consists of Elisa Bocanegra as beautician Truvy (Dolly Parton in the movie); Shannon Holt as Ouiser, the town curmudgeon (Shirley MacLaine in the movie); Inger Tudor as social worker M’Lynn (Sally Field in the movie); Monica McSwain as Shelby, M’Lynn’s daughter (Julia Roberts in the movie); Cerris Morgan-Moyer as Annelle, apprentice beautician and newcomer to town (Darryl Hannah in the movie); and Patti Yasutake as Clairee, the town’s former first lady (Olympia Dukakis in the movie).

Unlike the movie, the husbands and other male characters are mentioned but never seen.

The 28-city national tour, with one performance per stop, began Oct. 12 and ends March 8.

Yasutake, whose TV roles include Nurse Ogawa in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” appeared in the East West Players production as M’Lynn, along with Hiwa Bourne as Truvy, Ruth Coughlin as Shelby, Karen Huie as Ouiser, Dian Kobayashi as Clairee, and Lovelle Liquigan as Annelle.

Asked what it was like to join the LATW version, Yasutake said, “There were various factors to consider, such as touring, format, etc. Having done the play was a plus in that consideration, especially given the short rehearsal. Even though it’s a different role, my familiarity with the play’s overall structure, storytelling, relationships, dynamics, themes and such allowed me to spend the limited time focusing primarily on creating another character along with new relationships, plus learning a new format.

“The different format was the biggest challenge. In this radio-style yet live theatre-type format, every actor’s entire focus is straight ahead towards the audience behind stand microphones. The other characters are onstage, but we cannot look at each other. So the audience sees what each character is doing, but each actor cannot see with what expressions and reactions they are interacting. All our cues are vocal and audio, making everything we do entirely reliant on listening.

“This particular play is all about personal relationships and interactions, making it even more challenging when we can’t see each other. We do have costumes with limited changes to establish and express our characters, but because we are stationary, everything must be communicated vocally and with limited body language and gesticulation.”

Yasutake has gotten more comfortable with the format as the tour, which started in Livermore (Northern California), made its way to Fairfax, Va.; Hoover, Ala.; The Villages, Fla.; College Station, Texas; Flushing, N.Y.; Selisgrove, Pa.; Iowa City, Iowa; Albuquerque, N.M.; Kirksville, Mo.; Athens, Ohio; Glendora (Los Angeles County); Hillsdale, Mich.; Galloway, N.J.; Manassas, Va.; Frederick, Md.; Green Valley and Gilbert, Ariz.; Overland Park, Kan.; and Orange, Texas.

“It’s a unique hybrid of microphone or audio work and live performance,” she said. “I haven’t done a lot of audio work, but I enjoy it. So coupled with live performing, I actually have fun with it now, but only after becoming more familiar and confident how to do it. Interacting more directly with the audience is newer, since for example, I’m not a stand-up or singer. So the comedy in this particular play and the sassy fun of this particular character has certainly lent to my having fun with the more direct embrace of the audience in this format.”

The cast of “Steel Magnolias” faces the audience throughout the play. Yasutake is second from right. (Photo by Rich Rose)

Yasutake, who is new to LATW, is working for the first time with her castmates, some of whom have recorded and toured with LATW before. “It was very helpful having the various levels of experiences, so sometimes learn from and sometimes learn together.”

Wherever she has performed, the audiences have been terrific, she said. “The movie is popular if not iconic — in fact, this year is its 30th anniversary. It has certainly made the play especially beloved all these years. Many know the movie or have seen if not done the play locally in high school, college, or community theatre. They can quote lines, know the references, and anticipate the characters.”

Clairee’s one-liners include:

“The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”

“You know I love you more than my luggage.”

“If you can’t say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me.”

Yasutake added, “The play takes place in northern Louisiana — based on the playwright’s sister and mother — so Southern audiences are particularly receptive, responsive, and fun. But Midwest and Southwest audiences, too.

“However, what’s been very satisfying are the reactions from the men who don’t know the story and have gotten swept up and been surprised how much they laughed and cried and were very moved. When this play’s theme of human relationships navigating and supporting and uplifting each other’s joys and sorrows moves the audience universally, regardless of gender, race, or any other demographic — theirs as an audience or ours as a diverse cast — then it’s enormously fulfilling as an artist.”

In addition to Palm Desert, the show will travel to Alma and Conway, Ark.; Tacoma, Wash.; Danville, Ky.; Maryville, Tenn.; Clermont and Palm Beach, Fla.; and finally Morristown, N.J. — after which Yasutake will take a well-deserved rest.

For tickets to the Palm Desert show, call (760) 340-2787 or (866) 889-2787 or visit https://www.mccallumtheatre.com/. For more information on the tour and the cast, visit https://latw.org/current-tour.

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