The iconic ‘80s sitcom “Designing Women” has made the jump from screen to stage with the premiere of a modernized theatrical adaptation at TheatreSquared, but much of what made the original show dynamic feels lost in translation.
Along with a few additions, the “Designing Women” play follows the same beloved characters who staffed their Atlanta interior design firm in the television show, which aired 1986-93. However, although they are still working at Sugarbaker and Associates together, more than 30 years have passed and Julia and Suzanne Sugarbaker, Mary Jo Shively and Charlene Frazier-Stillfield are living through the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 presidential election.
I’ll admit I wasn’t very familiar with the original sitcom prior to watching the play’s premiere at T2, but I checked out a few episodes on Hulu after leaving the theater. It’s undeniable that the stage adaptation has a similar voice to the show, undoubtedly because its playwright, Linda Bloodworth Thomason, also created the sitcom, and the production’s director, her husband Harry Thomason, directed more than a dozen episodes of it.
However, I far preferred the few episodes I watched to the hours-long stage comedy I saw Friday night. The television show’s endlessly hilarious comedic take on timely social issues feels so natural and effortless, and I could watch the original cast banter back and forth for hours.
On the other hand, although the play is undeniably funny and far from poorly written, much of the modern social commentary felt forced and, quite frankly, a bit uncomfortable.
Jokes about wokeness and Donald Trump’s hair, triumphant verbal takedowns of Evangelical purity culture and Republican ex-husbands and sweeping monologues about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement often felt awkwardly shoehorned into an otherwise delightful romp through the lives of five aging but vivacious Southern women.
I’m not sure if this dissonance came from the fact that the transition from television to theater is very difficult, even for a writer as skilled as Bloodworth Thomason, or the way an overwhelming amount of climax and denouement was crammed into the second act. Maybe it was the fact that I, like many, usually prefer a bit of escape from reality when I go to the theater.
But whatever the problem was, as my roommate who attended the opening night performance with me so eloquently put it, watching the show felt a bit like scrolling through the Facebook feed of her staunchly Democratic mother’s Facebook feed. Entertaining and full of relevant social commentary for sure, but also a bit of a cringey liberal fantasy.
Still, script flaws aside, “Designing Women” at T2 is by no means a weak production. The gorgeous stage design is characteristic of what audiences can expect from the company’s exceptional design team. The West Theatre’s sprawling stage has been gorgeously transformed into a perfect modern reimagining of Sugarbaker and Associates’ sparkling office space (also Julia Sugarbaker’s home).
And to say the show is perfectly cast would be an understatement. Carmen Cusack triumphantly leads the cast as the indomitable Julia Sugarbaker, a sort-of matriarch to her ragtag crew of relatives, longtime friends and new colleagues. Cusack effortlessly masters Julia’s elegant mannerisms and high-brow Southern accent and plays hilariously off of Amy Pietz’s Suzanne Sugarbaker, Julia’s dramatic, chaotic Southern belle of a younger sister.
Other cast highlights include Carla Renata and Kim Matula as Cleo Bouvier and Haley McFee, the newest additions to the Sugarbaker and Associates team. Renata’s no-nonsense, strong-Black-Christian-lesbian landscape designer is the perfect foil to Matula’s sheltered, softspoken and deeply Evangelical “covenant wife” who is working outside the home for the first time as the firm’s delightfully inept secretary.
I would have loved to see Renata’s Bouvier get an even larger role than she did, and not just because I am a huge fan of the actress’s work on NBC’s Superstore, one of my favorite TV comedies. At times it was hard not to feel like Bouvier was just there to be the token sassy Black friend who gives her “Gone With the Wind”-loving coworker a scathing soliloquy about racism before fading into the background for the rest of the show.
Overall, settling on a conclusion about “Designing Women’s” stage debut is a complicated proposition. The show has its moments of pure comedic genius, and fans of the classic sitcom — particularly those who share Bloodworth Thomason’s worldview — will undoubtedly delight in seeing their favorite characters brought to life again for the 21st century.
But those who prefer more depth in a play’s writing or desire a sense of escapism from the “real world” with their theater-going experiences might find that “Designing Women” isn’t exactly a world premiere for the history books. This just might be one of those productions that individuals need to see for themselves, so they can decide for themselves.
“Designing Women” runs through Oct. 24 at TheatreSquared on Spring Street. Audience members must wear masks and present proof of vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours of showtime. A streaming option will be available Oct. 15-24. In-person and streaming tickets are available online. As part of T2’s 30 Under 30 program, 30 tickets to each performance are set aside at a price of $10 each for students and those under 30.