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Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Moonlight and Magnolias’ is a farce with Southern charm

The cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse's production of "Moonlight and Magnolias" features Fred Nelson, Stephanie Ichniowski, Gene Valendo and Thom Eric Sinn.
The cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse's production of "Moonlight and Magnolias" features Fred Nelson, Stephanie Ichniowski, Gene Valendo and Thom Eric Sinn.(Courtesy photo / HANDOUT)

Attending live theater should feel like being transported somewhere else, and such was the case at Laurel Mill Playhouse’s opening night showing of Irish screenwriter/playwright Ron Hutchinson’s farce “Moonlight and Magnolias.”

Set in old Hollywood behind the scenes of filming the 1939 classic “Gone With the Wind,” veteran director Ilene Chalmers and her seasoned cast and crew presented an ensemble performance of the quality one would expect to see several weeks into a run.

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“Moonlight and Magnolias” opened at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and was nominated for the 2004 Joseph Jefferson Award for New Work, 65 years after film mogul David O. Selznick saved the iconic movie that won 10 Academy Awards.

Many people don’t know that “Gone With the Wind” almost didn’t make it to the big screen.

Produced here by Maureen Rogers, the play reimagines what happened behind closed doors during a desperate rewrite of the film’s screenplay.

Selznick (played by Thom Sinn) fired “Gone With the Wind’s” director George Cukor and replaced him with “Wizard of Oz” director Victor Fleming (Fred Nelson). Selznick also paid renowned writer Ben Hecht (Gene Valendo) $15,000 to rewrite the screenplay.

The trio and Selznick’s secretary, Miss Poppenghul (Stephanie Ichniowski) reworked the script over five days, eating nothing but bananas and peanuts, which Selznick considered brain food.

These real events happened in 1939 against the backdrop of Jews fleeing Hitler’s Europe.

Hecht really hadn’t read “Gone With the Wind," so, in the play, Selznick and Fleming hilariously act out the plot as Hecht manically types the script.

Growing piles of banana peels and cracked peanut shells stoke the visual comedy as the men become more quarrelsome, their high jinx more slapstick and their colorful language inappropriate for children.

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Chalmers writes in her director’s notes that physical comedy is crucial to the show’s success, and under her direction, this adept cast nails it.

As Selznick, look-alike Sinn couldn’t be more convincing portraying a neurotic and tyrannical producer juggling phone calls from big names like Hedda Hopper, Ed Sullivan, Vivien Leigh and his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer.

The audience dissolves into stitches when he mimics Scarlett O’Hara (“fiddledeedee”) in the style of a southern belle.

There are dark moments of racism in author Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War drama; some of which surface in the play between Selznick and Hecht, who were both Jewish.

As the socially conscious writer, Valendo as Hecht argues that “no Civil War movie ever made a dime.” Reluctant to mythologize the old South (particularly slavery), he fights to cut the scene where Scarlett slaps her slave, Prissy, or to at least rewrite the dialogue, but Selznick refuses.

When Hecht, who is fascinating to watch, asks why Selznick doesn’t make a movie that makes “America look its ugly face in the mirror,” the producer replies, "No one wants to see that. America wants to see the way it thinks it looks.”

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Fred Nelson is larger than life as Fleming. A big guy who commands the stage with excellent comic timing and elocution, Nelson’s hip thrusts and wildly flailing legs when he mimics Melanie, Scarlett’s sister-in-law, giving birth may be the funniest moments in a very funny play.

Nelson, happily, never overwhelms his fellow actors.

As an added treat in “Moonlight and Magnolias,” dozens of black-and-white photos of vintage movie stars hang on the left and right wall flats, inviting fans on stage to guess who’s who after seeing a delightful show that’s kept them laughing and on the edge of their seats.

“Moonlight and Magnolias” continues through March 15 at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinee performances March 8 and March 15 are at 2 p.m. General admission is $20; active duty military, students (ages 12 and younger) and seniors (ages 65 and older) pay $15. For tickets, go to laurelmillplayhouse.org.

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