Theater Review - Don't call it a drag show

Designing Women' co-creator says there's more to it than meets the eye

Onstage Atlanta is about to launch the ninth edition of its Designing Women Live fundraiser, which has become a must-see event for Atlanta theatergoers in search of a good time. If Julia Sugarbaker looks a bit sturdier than you recall from the television show, that's because Atlanta actor and playwright Topher Payne portrays her in this stage version. DeWayne Morgan co-stars as the glamorous Sugarbaker sister Suzanne, and the actors co-direct the production.

The roots of this men-as-women stage production of the sitcom formed when the two actors staged a version of episodes from that other iconic show, "The Golden Girls." Morgan says that the benefit for AID Atlanta was well received but got hit with a cease and desist letter from the creators of the show (who also reportedly nixed a similar all-male production in New York). Never ones to be kept down for long, Morgan notes that while he and Payne were hanging out at the latter's home one night, the revelation suddenly dawned on him that they should take on "Designing Women," which was, of course, set in Atlanta.

Payne and Morgan have been fortunate enough to have the support of the show's creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thompson. "Linda is very excited because we're doing "Julia's Son" from season one, and she actually wrote that episode," Morgan says.

"Designing Women" is a very different show from "The Golden Girls" by virtue of being much more overtly political, and therefore, the process of selecting which episodes to adapt is a bit tricky. "It's a hard road choosing the episodes because you have to be careful. There's some episodes that, while they were awesome, you put them onstage and they kind of just sit there, if that makes any sense, because they were so political," Morgan says, adding that often, in reviewing the scripts, they'd uncover subplots that are difficult to stage. "We did the Supremes episode a few years ago, and people loved it, but there's a story line where her Charlene's friend is being beaten up and abused. It's very serious, and it was so woven into it. Sometimes we can take out a second plot, but I think everyone sort of forgot about it once they saw us all dressed as the Supremes."

Typically, the performers use one episode they have previously staged, along with one that is new to them. This production includes a previously produced mash-up of the "Foreign Affairs" and "Miss Trial" episodes, along with a new adaptation of "Julia's Son." "Julia's Son" marks the first time the group has used an episode from the first season of the series, but one constant that will remain is Payne's use of glasses actually worn by actress Dixie Carter as Julia. Morgan jokes that it's a bit mind-boggling to imagine the glasses on Carter's tiny frame, as they are huge even when worn by a man.

The bottom line is that the production is fun, it's a great way to raise money for Onstage Atlanta and the Process Theatre Company, and it's not just for die-hard fans of the original series. Morgan has been impressed over the years as audience members who admitted that they either weren't familiar with the show or weren't particularly fans of it have been won over by the performances of his group. Early on, Payne actually commented to Morgan that Suzanne Sugarbaker was one of his best performances as an actor, and the men try to remain faithful to the spirit of the characters without going too broad as broads.

"That's one thing that we always say, that we're not doing camp, we're not doing drag," Morgan says. "We're playing women. We try our best to play it as women. We try to be more true to the characters without trying to go over the top."

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