Ready for the Banquet: Topher Payne takes on the legendary Auntie Mame

Photo Credit Tom Gillespie
“I heard this great interview with Meryl Streep,” says Topher Payne as he sits in front of a makeup mirror. “She said the challenge isn’t making the audience believe you’re the person you’re pretending to be, it’s making the other person in the scene believe it. So I just try to focus on that.”

He says this as he begins the two-hour hair, makeup, and duct tape process that will transform him into the titular role in The Process Theatre Company’s Auntie Mame, running through May 5th at OnStage Atlanta. It tells the story of orphaned Patrick Dennis (played by Kate Graham as a child and Bryan Lee as an adult) sent to live with his jazz-age flapper aunt. Her motto, “Life is a banquet, and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death,” is put to the test when she loses her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. Undeterred, the two embark on a series of adventures that run from Broadway to Egypt to a charming Georgia plantation called Peckerwood.

Mame Dennis is considered one of the great roles for comediennes in American theatre- she’s been played by Rosalind Russell, Lucille Ball, and Christine Baranski, to name a few- and now Payne offers a fresh take in Barbara Cole Uterhart’s gender-bending production.

The idea for producing Auntie Mame arose from Process Theatre’s wildly popular Designing Women Live series, staged twice a year to standing room-only crowds. Payne’s eerily spot-on Julia Sugarbaker became an audience favorite, and Process Theatre Artistic Director DeWayne Morgan (who plays DWL’s Suzanne, and portrays Vera Charles in Auntie Mame) wanted to find a way to serve those audiences in a full production.

“We wouldn’t have attempted it without Topher as Mame,” says Morgan. “There are very few actors I know- or actresses, for that matter- who could pull of this part. It’s different from any Mame I’ve seen, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen Topher do.”

The resulting production is the largest The Process Theatre has ever taken on, with a cast of fifteen and endless set and wardrobe changes (there are seven wigs and sixteen costumes just for Topher.) In a time when many other theatre companies are downsizing their efforts, expectations are running high for Topher Payne’s portrayal of the eccentric aunt.

“In this weird second career I have as a male actress, I’m always the heavy,” says Payne. “I’m Julia, I’m Joan Crawford, I’m Dorothy Zbornak. Mame is such a departure from that. She’s flirty and carefree, wicked smart but a little ditzy. So I just beat my face and get on the ride, you know? It’s a ton of work, but I’m surrounded by friends and we’re having a blast. I guarantee anybody that shows up for the party will have a great time too.”
A fitting sentiment, since that’s probably exactly would Auntie Mame would say.

Auntie Mame runs April 14-May 5 at Onstage Atlanta in Suburban Plaza, 2597 North Decatur Road, Atlanta.
Tickets: 404.897.1802 or onstageatlanta.tix.com

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