When Peachtree Battle opened ten years ago on September 7, 2001, who could have imagined that the show would become the longest running play in Atlanta’s history? Beginning in the Peachtree Playhouse, the play, written, directed and produced by John Gibson and Anthony Morris, became a run-away hit, famous for its witty dialogue, pop culture references and eccentric characters. Eventually, Peachtree Battle moved to its current home at the Ansley Park Playhouse.
Both of the stars, Deborah Childs, as Atlanta socialite Trudy Habersham, and Anna House, as lush grandmother Azalea Wieuca, have been involved with the play since the beginning and (even with taking a few breaks from the show) have played their respective roles for approximately 1,100 performances. Written for House, the part of Azalea provides the show a comedic foil to Childs’ Trudy, a part she won easily. By dressing in character for her audition and wearing a shiny dress with poofy hair, she recounts that Gibson later told her that he saw her walking across the parking lot and said, “Here comes Trudy!”
Since the play’s beginning, the actresses have enjoyed exploring their characters. Describing Azalea, House explains, “She just says exactly what she thinks. I sometimes sort of beat around the bush so its fun being so out-spoken.” Childs comments that with Trudy, she is able “to play a caustic, manipulating, sexy, silly, frightened, deeply hurt little girl with great casts and make audiences laugh.”
Being together in Peachtree Battle has allowed House and Childs to develop a bond. Each one shares a mutual respect for the others’ talents. In addition to her talent, House has become impressed with Childs’ dependability as an actress. House says, “She’s able to carry on no matter what else is going on.” Childs continues to be impressed that “Anna will always bring the funny,” coyly adding, “and homemade oatmeal cookies,” a favorite of the cast.
In addition to their respect for one another, different casts of the show have bonded as well, allowing for unexpected reunions at times. Childs comments, “I walked in to a room once and stated, ‘All My Children!’ There were multiple former Holcombs, Candlers and Ansleys (and a few husbands). It is wonderful when our paths cross and re-cross.” House continues the thought by stating, “Since we’ve had a lot of actors come and go the overall cast temperament changes over time. The longer a group stays together the closer they usually bond.”
For audiences, the play offers various enjoyable and hilarious moments. Many of these show-stopping scenes include current events and celebrity news, resulting in changing pop culture references in the performances. While some of these references are due to celebrity guests in the audience, others play to significant events of the day. At times, the cast is given the changes in advance, but at other times, these changes are improvised during the show.
Regardless of the difficulty of changing their familiar lines, the cast has adapted well to this facet of the show and has learned to think on their feet. According to House, “We’re used to making changes at certain spots so it’s pretty easy now unless John decides to change something 15 seconds before I go on!” Likewise, Childs has become used to the changes and she recounts a humorous story.
“There are times where I am given changes in advance and times where I get them when I get to the theater, and if the new name is particularly difficult, I will stash it in the flowers. The most interesting case occurred in February 2007 when I was on stage in a scene and my eye caught something waving off stage left: John Gibson, looking like a chauffeur at the airport, was waving a brown cardboard sign that said ‘BRITNEY SPEARS,’” comments Childs. “I had no idea what that meant. Then, the maid rushes on stage saying, ‘Mrs. Habersham, there’s a short bald man who keeps asking for you.’ The light went on in my head, and I replied, ‘That’s not a short bald man, that’s Britney Spears!’”
Despite the changes that can happen at moment’s notice to the script, the play has never become unhinged. In fact, Childs recalls only one time that a show has been stopped. “At one point in the first act, there are three gunshots off stage. One night, right after the gunshots, a woman jumps up, screams and then yells, ‘Call 911!’ It was the only time we had to stop the show during a performance.” However, she adds, “Yes, we did finish the show.”
In addition to including celebrities-of-the-moment in the show, the cast has had the opportunity to perform for notable guests such as Burt Reynolds, Marcia Cross, Monica Kauffman, David Chandley and Rue McClanahan, who was their first celebrity visitor. Childs explains, “I was sitting alone in the dressing room and John came in and picked up a chair and said, over his shoulder, ‘Need a chair. We’re sold out and Rue McClanahan just walked in.’ She was lovely and gracious and stayed and chatted with us after the show.” House remembers, “She was just so natural and down to earth.”
Recently, Peachtree Battle has been performing on just a few nights a week, leaving the cast available to work on other projects. This past year, both House and Childs were able to take part in movies filming in Georgia. House has a small role in The Wettest County in the World which was shown at Cannes Film Festival this past May. In another high-profile movie, Childs has a unique part. Describing her experience on set for the Billy Bob Thornton-helmed Jayne Mansfield’s Car, she says, “I was a body double and my scene partners were Robert Duvall, Ron White, Robert Patrick, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, and I got kissed on the forehead twice by Kevin Bacon!”
When not busy with other projects or performing in Peachtree Battle, Childs and House enjoy seeing other Atlanta theater productions. During the summer, House had the opportunity to catch The Tempest, part of Georgia Shakespeare’s summer repertory. House says, “I was impressed by the staging and the actors’ ability to handle the material.” But, the most recent play to grab Childs’ attention was the Alliance Theatre’s production of August: Osage County, which she saw twice during its run last spring. Childs says, “August: Osage County is an amazing play, and the Weston family and relations may be more messed up than the Habershams.”
Peachtree Battle is currently scheduled to run through the end of next month. When asked if they thought it would once again be extended, both Childs and House were uncertain, but did hint that they would not be opposed to continuing their roles for a little longer. In fact, when talking about future projects, Childs exclaims, “I’m hoping for Peachtree Battle 2!” As there are no official plans for a sequel to the hit play, this is most likely just wishful thinking for both Childs and fans all over the city.
To see Childs and House in Peachtree Battle before October 31, please visit Ansley Park Playhouse’s website for tickets and more information.
By Andrew Wesley