By David Templeton
Just over a year ago, actor-director Peter Cooper suffered a severely broken neck in a freak car accident. Today, he's trying to decide what color a Louisiana beauty parlor should be.
"We've painted the set, but I don't like the colors, so we're going to repaint it," he says, taking a short break during a long day at the Raven Performing Arts Center in Healdsburg, where he is directing Robert Harling's beloved comedy-drama Steel Magnolias. "Unless I change my mind," he says, with a chuckle, "were going to go with a pale yellow."
For Cooper, the production (which opens this weekend) marks his return to the stage after a long recovery that has required several surgeries, hours of physical therapy and plenty of time wondering if he'd ever be able to work again.
The last show Cooper directed, Pegasus Theater's Perfect Ganesh, was last March. That was just before the roadside accident that sent Cooper's car over an embankment, where he ended up trapped for several hours, his head held still by a passing doctor who was able to climb into the wreckage and stay with Cooper until the rescue crew arrived. Not long before that, he'd appeared at Pegasus in the role of a mentally ill mathematician in the popular drama Proof. While it is unlikely that Cooper will feel up to taking any stage roles for a while, he's happy that the Raven Players approached him, not long after the accident, to offer him the opportunity to direct Steel Magnolias ("They asked me after I'd broken my neck, when I was vulnerable," he laughs), if for no reason than that it has given him something else to look forward to during his long recuperation.
"I like the show," he says. "I directed it once before at Pegasus, and I've always hoped to be able to do it again. The fact that five of my six actors have never done this play before gives me a chance to do things a little differently. Of course, the arc of the play is the same, the underlying thread of humor with the occasional touch of tragedy, that's all the same, and that's what I love so much about Steel Magnolias. "
Set entirely in the hair salon of sympathetic beautician Truvy Jones, the story deals with the close-knit friendship of a small circle of Southern belles, the "steel magnolias" of the title. As they frequently come together at Truvy's salon to gossip, bicker, compete and conspire, the sextet of friends experience a full menu of life's joys and tragedies.
"This play is about the ups and downs of life," says Cooper. "It's about love. It's about togetherness. It's about life. It is about all of our lives. It interests me because these women are all so real. These are six very real women, and I think there is something to identify with in all of them."
One of the things Cooper says he likes so much about the play is that the characters all display admirable and loathsome qualities.
"I'm very fortunate," he says, "in that I have actors who are able to display all of that at once. I think these kinds of characters, their complexity and depth, are a lot of fun for actors to play. Especially if your actors are intelligent, and mine are very intelligent. They are up to the challenge and just very interested in these characters, lovely Southern eccentrics that they are."
Steel Magnolias runs Friday–Saturday, May 1–24, at 8pm; also, May 17 and 24 at 2pm. Raven Performing Arts Center, 115 North St., Healdsburg. $14–$20. 707.433.6335, ext. 11.
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