Theater Review - Playwright Topher Payne gets inside Joan Crawford’s head (and pumps)

Christina Darling

Atlanta actor and playwright Topher Payne considers himself lucky that Steven Spielberg, not Faye Dunaway, introduced him to Joan Crawford.

Most young people of his generation discover the silver screen icon – if they ever do – through Mommie Dearest, the unintentionally hilarious adaptation of Christina Crawford’s tell-all memoir. Payne, 30, discovered the real actress instead of Dunaway’s campy caricature.

As an 11-year-old boy in Kosciusko, Miss., Payne stumbled upon a rerun of “Night Gallery,” which featured a segment called “Eyes,” directed by a young Spielberg and starring Crawford. “She absolutely knocked my socks off. I couldn’t help but hang on her every word, and watch every single move she made,” he says. “Afterward, my mom tried, as best she could, to explain who Joan Crawford was. She was a goddamn movie star, and they don’t make them like that any more.”

The movie star’s unmaking came through the one-two punch of her adopted daughter’s angry 1978 exposé and the 1981 film version, which made hysterical dialogue like “NO WIRE HANGERS!” into punch lines in perpetuity. Now Payne’s attempting to reveal another side of the dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship with the world premiere of his play Christina Darling, in which he plays the silver screen icon.

Payne began thinking critically about Mommie Dearest after yet another viewing in the early 2000s. The film ends with Crawford’s death in 1977 and Christina’s discovery that she’d been written out of her adopted mother’s will. Payne recalls, “Her brother says, ‘I guess Mommy got the last word,’ and Christina replies, ‘Did she?’”

“It’s a wonderful grace note for the film, but after that, I heard that Christina Crawford had successfully sued Joan Crawford’s estate and gotten a nice chunk of change,” says Payne. “Getting the money, however, didn’t fit in the image of Christina Crawford as the world’s most famous victim. That was the first time I thought that Mommie Dearest might not have been the whole truth.”

Payne decided to research Crawford’s life with the idea of writing a play that offered a different perspective. “After I started delving into the events of Mommie Dearest, I delved into what was going on in the life of Joan at the same time, and it was almost beautifully contradictory. For instance, Christina talks about being sent to private school and not seeing her mother for months. But at that time, Joan had lost her contract with the movie studio and had to take shit roles in movies to pay for her daughter’s education. And to maintain the image of Joan Crawford, which was expensive. If you’re going to be an icon of glamour, you’re going to have to pay the bills.”

Playing through May 8 at the Process Theatre, Christina Darling largely takes place inside the mind of Christina Crawford (Barbara Cole Uterhardt) during her stroke in 1981. The near-death experience causes her to reassess her mother’s career and their relationship. Christina Darling is Payne’s 12th play to premiere in Atlanta. He describes it as the biggest play he’s ever attempted, with the largest cast (eight actors) and the most complicated elements, including dance choreography, fight choreography, and recreations of Crawford’s work and screen tests projected on video.

And, technically, two Joans. Kristin Kalabi plays the performer at the dawn of her career as a dancer from Oklahoma named Lucille LeSueur. “She became the quintessential jazz-age flapper, gangly and wild, everything that ‘Joan’ wasn’t,” says Payne. “Lucille becomes aware that she’s part of a dying breed, so she creates Joan Crawford as this image of perfection to shield herself from the poverty of her upbringing and the gossip about her.”

Payne appears as Joan halfway through the play, but never thought he’d be the one donning her costumes. “I initially wrote the role for Rachel Sorsa as Joan, but I took so damn long writing it, Rachel got married and moved to Los Angeles. Once I had the idea that Lucille and Joan would be separate characters, I had the idea of Joan being a man. The audience would always be aware of the artifice if we had a flesh-and-blood actress in the role, no matter how good she was.” Payne hopes the drag in Christina Darling has a similar effect as Charles Busch plays such as Die! Mommie! Die!, which acknowledge the artifice but still try to engage the audience’s sympathies.

Christina Darling director DeWayne Morgan suggested that the playwright himself take on Joan, since Payne had performed drag roles as an actor (including the Process Theatre’s Babylon, also opposite Uterhardt). Payne realized he’d have some big pumps to fill. “I initially resisted the idea a lot. An actor would have to live up to Joan. For a performer, that’s an enormous hurdle.”

Payne hopes audiences won’t approach the show or the performance as a campy spoof on Crawford. “All I can do is play with all the sincerity I have,” he says. “There are moments in the show when the comedy comes from the absurdity of who she is, and the body she’s inhabiting in Christina Darling. It’s important to play a person like Joan in line with the standards she had. So we do an extra hour of choreography rehearsal, and spend an extra half-hour to get the makeup right. Because that’s who she was, that level of attention to detail.”

During a 2005 interview with Creative Loafing, Payne alluded to legal red flags raised regarding Christina Darling by the title role’s inspiration. “Here’s what I can say,” Payne laughed when asked about the legal challenge. “There’s no one that’s going to watch this show, that supposedly takes place as a psychotic episode during a stroke, with a 6-foot-3, 30-year-old man playing Joan, and mistake it for reality. It’s clearly a product of the author’s imagination.”

Despite presenting an alternate point of view of the events in Mommie Dearest, Payne would welcome Christina Crawford to see Christina Darling. “The play isn’t about vindicating Joan, it’s about the fact that she and Christina deserved better than the public perception of them. There’s no sunshine and rainbows at the end of the play, but a level of acceptance that feels much more respectful of everyone involved.”

And maybe people will ease up on the wire hanger jokes.