ROSWELL, Ga. –The Georgia Ensemble Theatre is now bringing audiences the fifth installment of its collaboration with Atlanta playwright Topher Payne and his newest work commissioned by the theater.
It’s called “Morningside,” an outrageous comedy that fills the stage with nine women, as they wend their way through most feminine of relationships – the baby shower.
Nine women. Each has a secret and a surprise that will push the bonds of family and friendship.
Payne said it is a tip of the hat to “The Women” and “Steel Magnolias” two classic plays with women and about women that he loved for a long time.
“But ‘The Women’ is 80 years old and ‘Steel Magnolias’ turns 30 this year. So I had a lot of curiosity about exploring a story of women, Southern women in particular, in 2017,” Payne said. “I wanted to look at the demands and challenges women face currently and something that speaks to these times as the other plays spoke of theirs.”
But the catalyst for writing the play was actually “12 Angry Men.” 12 male jurors left alone in a jury room must sort out reality with each man bringing his own background, his own values and his own demons.
“I’ve never seen a story like that or ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ where a whole bunch of men are locked up with their own sets of competing ideas and then duke it out,” he said.
“I had never seen a story like that with women. So that’s where I started.”
So Payne began to play with idea but the challenge what would be the backdrop for the story? He tried to explore in his mind what places where would only women gather in 2017 – as bridesmaids? As Mary Kay reps?
Then it hit him – at a baby shower.
“With all the women in my life, I’ve never heard one say, ‘I’m going to a baby shower and I’m so excited.’ That just doesn’t happen.
“And when can the stakes possibly be higher than when we’re coming together to celebrate a new life coming into the world? All of those ideas you have about career and family and personal goals come into play,” Payne said.
You have the plans for that future life. You have the women there who do not have children by choice – and perhaps the women who don’t have children and didn’t have a choice.
Then you throw in generational conflict and that leaves a playwright with a heady brew of plot possibilities.
So with about a dozen or so plot lines developing, Payne takes great joy in setting them all in motion with those nine women on stage.
“You can have a scene playing out on one corner of the set while you watch in another corner the fallout from the last two scenes before,” he said.
Realizing he was on a journey where no man has gone before, Payne said he began quizzing his friends, his sister and his cousins.
“I would go to each of them and open with, ‘Tell me your favorite baby shower story.”
It was never a “good” story. It was always one of pure drama – or melodrama as the case may have been.
It didn’t end there. Sitting down with 20 women involved in the play was a revelation as the sidebars about their personal experiences floated out.
As rehearsals and rewrites began, Payne said the best thing he could do was keep his mouth shut and just listen to these ladies would talk about their experiences.
“As I did my rewrites some form of those tidbits would appear.”
Having reunited veteran director Shannon Eubanks again at GET was another big plus, Payne said.
“It is a demanding play for a director and I can’t think of anyone I would rather have tackle this than her,” he said.
He asks us to imagine a spring afternoon in Atlanta’s trendy Morningside neighborhood. The bonds of friendship, family and intergenerational differences are about to hit the blender.