Gay men longing for a return of Julia, Suzanne, Mary Jo and Charlene get a chance to see a live version of “Designing Women” on Wednesday and Thursday, with one great twist—the major performers are all male.
DeWayne Morgan, Topher Payne and their gang with Process Theatre Company are back in drag for “Designing Women LIVE”—which features actual scripts from the TV show—after last year’s successful “The Golden Girls LIVE” fundraiser, which raised money for AID Atlanta.
The success of the 2009 event encouraged the cast to stay in dresses, only as a different set of popular characters. The “Designing Women” fundraiser benefits Process Theatre, and the group is reserving future “Golden Girls” shows to be specifically associated with AID Atlanta fundraising.
“The response to the ‘Golden Girls LIVE’ fundraiser for AID Atlanta exceeded everything we expected,” Payne says. “We didn’t want to confuse the audience base and the charity program by doing ‘Golden Girls’ this time, so we’ll reserve that for AID Atlanta, and ‘Designing Women’ will directly benefit Process Theatre.”
The shows are a great way to introduce the theater experience to a new audience that doesn’t regularly attend stage plays, he says.
“People who aren’t as willing to come to a play might come to see what we do with this fun show, and some of those may come back to see a legitimate world premiere,” Payne says. “It gets people in the habit of and comfortable with the idea of enjoying a night at the theater.”
Process will debut playwright Payne’s latest work this spring.
Morgan, the artistic director of Process Theatre, says that the “Designing Women LIVE” cast is full of gay men. He stars as Suzanne Sugarbaker, and Payne stars as the older and wiser sister Julia Sugarbaker.
The rest of the cast includes Greg Morris as Mary Jo Shively; Joey Ellington as Charlene Stillfield; and Spencer Stephens as Anthony Bouvier. Actress Jill Hames—who played Little Edie in the recent “Grey Gardens” production at Actor’s Express—plays the kooky Bernice Clifton.
Morgan feels that the ensemble works well together, but he says Hames might steal the show as Bernice.
“She is the most dead-on of all of us,” Morgan says. “At our first rehearsal, we could not stop laughing.”
Payne agrees: “She’s eerily accurate.”
The two episodes that the group is adapting for the stage are “Suzanne Goes Looking for a Friend,” in which Suzanne deals with a beauty queen friend who has come out of the closet, and “Bernice’s Sanity Hearing,” in which Bernice’s mental stability is called into question.
Neither episode is available on DVD, so it should be fun to revisit shows that haven’t been available for years. The cast also decided to weave some classic moments from other episodes into the stage script, so the patched-in “Best Of” monologues and one-liners make the material extra fresh. Payne incorporates Julia’s famous “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” monologue into one skit, for example.
“[‘Designing Women’] is so loved and well known, especially in Atlanta,” Payne says. “I have never felt such an obligation to get every word and inflection perfect.”
Morgan says that, like “The Golden Girls,” “Designing Women” attracted a lot of gay viewers, and that he himself was a huge fan of the show.
“What’s not to love,” he says. “You have an ex beauty queen that all gay men can relate to, as well as a Joan Crawford like character in Julia. These four women are just the greatest combination. And the fashions are great.”
Morgan remembers that “Designing Women” and “The Golden Girls” had a lot in common. “Both had four women, some larger than life, and each had a gay episode and an episode dealing with AIDS,” he says. “But despite similarities, each was its own show.”
To prepare, Morgan has been watching the “Suzanne Goes Looking for a Friend” episode over and over to get Suzanne’s mannerisms and movement.
“It’s a lot of fun (playing her),” he says. “I loved her as a kid. She tells it like it is and spares no one.”
What’s next for this lively crew of performers? Payne hints that “Bewitched” is on the table for a benefit show, but in the expect-the-unexpected world these guys live in, anything is possible.
The Process Theatre Company’s “Designing Women LIVE” runs at Onstage Atlanta Wednesday, Feb. 24 and Thursday, Feb. 25. Online tickets are available, or call 404-245-4205. And hurry, Wednesday’s performance was almost sold out as of Tuesday afternoon.
Jim Farmer is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and public relations professional specializing in film promotions. He is the director of the annual Out On Film, Atlanta’s gay and lesbian film festival, and has been a theater critic for more than a dozen years.