New play ‘Christina Darling’ explores Joan Crawford, daughter

The world premiere of Process Theatre’s “Christina Darling” this weekend marks another chapter in the saga of legendary Hollywood star Joan Crawford and her adopted daughter, Christina.

Christina’s rocky relationship with Joan was covered in Christina’s book “Mommie Dearest” and later made into a campy film with Faye Dunaway.

Now gay playwright Topher Payne explores Christina’s competing personal histories and the difficult relationship between mother and daughter.

The play opens after Christina (played by Barbara Cole Uterhardt) watches the film version of “Mommie Dearest” and has a heart attack. She is visited by her grandmother, who takes her on a journey to understand the life of Joan (played by Payne).

The Georgia Voice caught up with the inimitable Joan Crawford (Payne, of course) to discuss the play.

Hello Ms. Crawford. Can you tell us a little about your new show?
May I call you Jimmy?

Yes, ma’am.
Well, Jimmy, are you familiar with “Mildred Pierce?” [the film that won Ms. Crawford a Best Actress Oscar]. I think this surpasses that; it’s the “Mildred Pierce” for a new generation.

My adopted daughter Christina in the piece is played by actress Barbara Cole Uterhardt, who brings more to the role than Christina does herself.  The great Betty Mitchell plays [grandmother] Anna and Kristin Kalabi is the young Joan.

‘Christina Darling’
April 16 – May 8
Onstage Atlanta
2597 North Decatur Road, Decatur, GA 30033

I’m happy to be able to bring this show to my fans.  It’s been a long time since I was able to greet them. I will stay all night until every single photograph is signed.

And the wardrobe, Jimmy! I can’t wait for my fans to see the wardrobe!

You and Christina both worked on the soap opera “The Secret Storm,” correct?
Anyone who saw Christina on “The Secret Storm” saw her specific limitations as an actress. Christina and I were able to work on the show. I stepped in for her. We never had the opportunity to share scenes but we did share a character. I was 62 and she was 28. I want to be clear – Christina did read for the part in “Christina Darling” but once you see the show you’ll understand why Barbara got it.

Have you seen “Mommie Dearest?”
I have. After a few stiff drinks, I was able to make it through.  Faye Dunaway is a committed and intense actress. She didn’t disappoint, but the script did not live up to the strength of the character.

How do you describe the relationship with Christina?
Christina has always had a casual relationship with the truth. She loves the value of stories. I’ve been dead for 30 years and to manufacture material, you have to be creative.

What do you make of Christina’s statements about your parenting skills?
It’s certainly not the first time I have heard that from her. Now that she is an adult, I wonder how clean her house is.  What standards does she have? If people did not have standards, the whole world would go the hell.  If she had been adopted by a hard-scrabble family in Oklahoma, I’d be interested to see how she turned out.
As for using wire hangers, if you could see what they can do to a good dress, you can understand why I never use them!

Ms. Crawford, have you always had a strong relationship with gay men?
I love all my gay fans. In Hollywood Billy Haines was a true and loyal friend, and loyalty is a precious thing. His partner Jimmy, they had the best of what a marriage can be. I did not experience that until later in my life.

Is it true that you dance in this show?
Yes. Anyone who had read my autobiography knows I started as a dancer. I am delighted to introduce or reintroduce dance to my fans.  It’s been so long since I danced.  But it’s work hard, Jimmy. Hard work!

Is Bette Davis attending opening night?
I have not heard that. It would be so kind of her! Encountering Bette is always such a memorable experience!