BY SANDY STAGGS
Moonlight and Magnolias is pure guilty pleasure as we watching skilled actors in their apogee, uproariously “creating” some of the most cherished moments in cinematic lore..
As I nestled into the acclimation of 1939 Hollywood and David O. Selznick’s executive office in the Mill Town Players’ hilarious new production Moonlight and Magnolias, my mind didn’t so much gravitate to sipping mint juleps under a magnolia shade tree at a Twelve Oaks plantation barbecue or regaling in prize-winning recipes for Southern pecan pie. Or even Carol Burnett descending down the grandiose staircase draped in Bob Mackie’s green velvet dress ripped from the windows of Tara with the curtain rod still intact and doubling as shoulder pads.
Instead, my thoughts gravitated to “Haven’t I seen this play before?”
And after a cursory search on this website I re-discovered Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell by mother and son team Duke Ginsberg and V. Cate, last produced at Electric City Playhouse, and before that in 2015 at Greenville (nee Little) Theatre.
While both plays mine the same five-day marathon of insanity in turning 1,037 pages of Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster novel about the Civil War and literature’s most fascinating heroine into a manageable and filmable screenplay, Ron Hutchinson’s farce at MTP actually appeared some three years before Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell.
The action picks up the legend in early 1939 as Selznick (played by veteran Upstate actor Bruce Meahl in his MTP debut) has temporarily shut down production just five weeks into shooting GWTW. The notorious burning of Atlanta sequence has already been filmed with stunt doubles in faraway silhouettes and the torching of half the MGM backlot including old sets from his “King Kong” extravaganza.
Selznick’s dilemma? Screenwriter Sydney Howard’s original adaptation of the epic has an untenable six-hour running time. And after several re-write efforts by a host of other scribes, the producer recruits Ben Hecht (played by Rod McClendon) – former Chicago newsman and highly-respected author of “The Front Page,” “Nothing Sacred” and “Scarface”- and pulls director Victor Fleming (Chris White) off “The Wizard of Oz” to re-write GWTW.
Effortlessly and seamlessly obscuring the lines between fiction and fact into a wholly coherent and delicious concoction, this adept trio engages in a five-day marathon writing session locked in Selznick’s office and sustaining only on bananas and peanuts while their human link to the outside world is Selznick’s dutiful secretary Miss Popping (the unflinching and deadpan Nancy Burkard in a delicious portrayal.)
The bulk of the sight gags are derived from Hecht’s refusal to read the trashy melodrama, leading Meahl (as Scarlett) and White (as Butler, Melanie, Prissy, et al) to re-enact all of the scenes for him as he bangs away on the typewriter hour after hour.
Meahl, astutely demonstrates his character’s devotion, obsession and urgency and conversely the playful side of the producer with his swishing and sashaying while reciting Scarlett’s lines in a falsetto voice, killing the Yankee invader and even assisting Melanie (White huffing and puffing spread-eagle on the couch) in delivering her baby.
The gang gets a lot of mileage from the delirium of fatigue and finding the perfect dialogue and camera angle of the infamous scene when Scarlett slaps Prissy after she lies about her midwife skills: Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothing about birthin’ babies!
This boisterous scene is played out at least a dozen times with Meahl’s hand really landing on White’s sore ruddy cheeks.
McClendon, a MTP regular player, thrives in neurotic roles like this and delivers the play’s longest and most serious monologue about anti-Semitism, Hitler and the war in Europe, and the auspicious new beginnings of Jews in Hollywood. Though it’s an important that Hecht (an ardent Zionist) and germaine point, the script does lag here and veers somewhat from its farcical form.
And the sight of a haggard and spent Burkard at the top of act two in the midst of the session – hair amiss, smeared lipstick and disheveled blouse and jacket – is worth the price of admission alone. Ditto, a magnificent freeze of Burkard framed in Madeleine Dixon’s deep red and amber lighting recreating the matte painting in Scarlett O’Hara’s infamous proclamation while holding the plantation’s last turnip to the heavens: As God is my witness, I ‘ll never go hungry again!
A play about the making of Gone With the Wind – still the most successful film in box-office history in today’s dollars – may have limited appeal to millennials or younger, but those who remember when GWTW was event television in the day will be soundly rewarded.
Just as director Noah Taylor notes in the Playbill of his childhood obsession of “The Wizard of Oz,” I am a lifetime GWTW-phile; the book, the film, the horrible sequel, and even a visit to the Margaret Mitchell house in Atlanta, where I picked up some Mammy refrigerator magnets. Yes, Hattie McDaniel is the first face I see every morning. And though I didn’t really glean any new nuggets of truth about the film or its players, this comedy is a most amusing affair that even casual fans will surely delight in.
This production features a spectacular set designed by Will Ragland (MTP Founder and Executive Artistic Director) of Selznick’s executive office: a 10 foot window and drapes, ornate art deco flourishes, “walnut” woodwork and more.
Drew Whitley is assistant director, Sims Hall is stage manager and the lovely period costumes are by Stacey Hawks.
Moonlight and Magnolias continues through Feb. 2 at the historic Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby St. in Pelzer. For tickets, call (864) 947-8000 or visit www.milltownplayers.org