Tracy Shaffer knows the dangers of being too-good-to-be-true.
"That's the trap," said the actress who plays Shelby, a young diabetic in "Steel Magnolias" (at the Wilshire Theatre). "I mean, this girl does her Christmas shopping in advance. She gourmet-cooks, she sings Mozart, she wears a lot of pink. I don't trust people when they're too sweet: 'Hi, how are you? You look great.' You say, 'What's behind that?' But when Shelby asks how you are, she really asks how you are. She cares."
Not surprisingly, Shaffer envisions her character as the emotional linchpin for the contemporary comedy-drama, set in a Louisiana beauty shop. A succession of Saturday-morning gabfests between the local customers is the backdrop for the loving relationship between Shelby and her mother (played by Barbara Rush)--and the consequences when the newly married Shelby decides to get pregnant.
"Because of the diabetes, she's lived her entire life knowing how precarious it is," Shaffer said. "The rest of us live in a state of denial about our mortality; it's something that happens to other people. But Shelby knows the truth of life--which is that she can go any time. All her childhood she heard, 'You can't do that: you're fragile.' When they tell her she's going to die if she has a child, she says: 'I'm going to die anyway. I've been 'going to die' since I was 7 years old."
Since the character is based on playwright Robert Harling's late sister, Shaffer (who's performed the part since the Pasadena Playhouse staging last fall) feels a responsibility to do justice to her memory. "You want to be as good as they remember her," she said. "I know there have been others who played the role, but--like I told Bobby, 'Now that I've met your family, I think I am your sister.' "
That includes her transformation into a Louisiana belle. "I'm not a Southern girl," said Shaffer, who was born in La Mirada. "But I did spend some time there when I had a Southern beau. And yes, I can drawl. But it's more than a drawl. It's in the moves, in the wind. There's a heaviness in the air when it's humid--and it permeates everyone's lives. If you were playing a girl from Texas who lives out on a ranch, she'd have a big, broad, free, cutting-through-the-plains type of movement.
"In the South the trees are old, they hang low. The magnolias and honeysuckle and jasmine come out and there's a lot of sweetness in the air. It's a kind of loveliness you can get into--like when you hear a song and you dance (to that mood).
"Once I was in Alaska doing 'Noises Off' and it was dark all the time. After the second week, I thought, 'This is what Ibsen is like; this is the Scandinavian experience of life.' And you realize how much environment affects people."
In the last seven months of touring, she's had to make some adjustments to her own rhythms.
"It's the first time in my life where all I had to be responsible for was being at the theater eight times a week for 3 1/2 hours," Shaffer said sunnily. "I wasn't getting my bills, my mail; I'd delegated all that stuff. I could basically watch soap operas and eat bon bons all day if I wanted to--although I didn't. Our (regular) lives are like a series of appointments; we structure ourselves into little periods of time. So it was jarring at first."
An alumna of the Stella Adler Conservatory in New York, Shaffer moved West in 1986. A waitressing job at the Hard Rock Cafe kept her afloat during her leaner acting days. "I look at the women in this cast," she said, referring to such elders as Rush, Marion Ross and Carole Cook--"all of us actresses at different points in our lives and careers. Each of us has a unique talent, each has taken a unique path. Being with them has allowed me to see how life in this industry can treat you.
"I look at them and say, 'Is there a reason I have to buy into this (career) fear?' Sure, it's easy to be neurotic. You get off the plane in L.A. and think: 'I'm not pretty enough, not tall enough, not blond enough, my nails aren't long enough--and I put on a ton of weight on the tour.' You can drive yourself mad thinking how you're not enough. But after five minutes of that you say, 'Wow, really boring. I don't have to buy into that.' "