Atlanta playwright Topher Payne loves his Southern grand dames, and there are no less than three in his new comedy Lakebottom Prime, currently having its Atlanta premiere at OnStage Atlanta through May 17, produced by the independent Process Theatre Company. Like his 2011 play Lakebottom Proper, this newer work was commissioned by the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Georgia, where it had its world premiere last year. Proper was a contemporary comedy, and Prime is technically its prequel: both are set in the real Victorian-era Columbus neighborhood of Lakebottom, originally designed around Wildwood Lake, which was drained in the mid-1920s due to a malaria pandemic.
Lakebottom Prime brings us back to 1924; the beautiful and beloved lake has brought on mosquitos, which have brought on malaria. It’s not the most likely set-up in which to search for comedy gold, but Payne certainly mines it for all its worth. The wedding day of Brewster Tuttle (Adam Bailey) and Daisy Doverdill (Amanda Cucher) is approaching, and the entire wedding party and half the guests have fallen ill, while the army is spraying insecticide and threatening to drain the lake where the wedding is scheduled to take place.
It’s a series of disasters that controlling matriarch and social pillar Cilla Tuttle (Jill Hames) seems to take as a personal affront: she not only has to watch her hopes for a lovely wedding for her son go down the drain, she’s also had to suffer the indignity of ceding control of planning the day to the mother of the bride, the nouveau riche dairy farmer’s wife Eugenia Doverdill (Frankie Earle). Elaborate plans to salvage the situation are hatched, stiff drinks are poured and wicked barbs are traded.
Hames as Cilla not only nails the Southern society-lady archetype, but the controlling, obsessive aspects of the character allow her to overlay something even weirder and funnier on top of it. She’s a delight to watch. Jo Howarth as her mother-in-law, Tilly Tipton Tuttle, is forbearing and magisterial, and Earle — though she’s slower to warm to the cadences and peculiarities of the high-strung Southern type — beautifully delivers a defiant speech mocking Cilla’s pretensions by saying she’d celebrate the draining of the lake by dancing in the leftover mud.
Payne’s historical references seem right on (he’s a playwright who does his research), and much to his credit the references that give us the place and time never seem forced or ancillary: they’re nicely embedded in the comedy.
To call Act II’s sequence of events “silly’” and “implausible” doesn’t really amount to a point of criticism. It’s a show that defiantly and winningly wears both silliness and implausibility as badges of honor. I think even those who normally resist being pulled into that territory could be won over, though it’s fair to warn people that’s where it all heads in the second act.
There’s a charming, lighter-than-air, confectionary quality that’s maintained throughout the show, and its structure and pacing are actually solid as a tank. But to maintain the energy of this atmosphere and to import more comic potential for the characters he’s created, Payne moves the story out in ever-widening and ever-more unlikely circles, circles that grow so wide they eventually encompass the planet Mars.
It’s all fun and he makes it work, but in my opinion, he actually didn’t need to go so far as all that. He found what he needed in Columbus, Georgia — which, in the end, is far more daring, absurd and strange than blasting everything into outer space.