Moonlight and Magnolias
Reviewed by Julio Martinez
Rubicon Theatre Company
Through September 18
One might have expected the landmark film Gone With the Wind (1939), based on the equally acclaimed novel by Margaret Mitchell, to have just poured off the page onto scriptwriter Sydney Howard’s typewriter — and in turn to have played out in all its glory in its filming by director, George Cukor. Winning eight Oscars, including Best Picture for producer David O. Selznick, should have been a no-brainer.
According to playwright Ron Hutchinson’s four-character Moonlight and Magnolias, that ain’t the way it happened. Three weeks into shooting exteriors, Selznick (Patrick Vest) fired Cukor and shut down production because he didn’t have a workable script. So he brings in wunderkind script doctor Ben Hecht (Joel Bryant) and director Victor Fleming (Cylan Brown), who just happened to be working on The Wizard of Oz. He makes Fleming the director of Gone with the Wind and pays Hecht an exorbitant amount of money to re-write it into a workable script in one week, just in time to begin filming with the actors.
Stunned to discover Hecht hasn’t read the book, Selznick locks the door to his office and insists that he and Fleming work through it, playing all the roles while Hecht sits at the typewriter for five days, typing away on no sleep and a diet of bananas and peanuts, regularly supplied by Selznick’s hard-working assistant, Miss Poppenguhl (Jennifer Ridgway).
Director Stephanie Coltrin orchestrates a fast-paced exercise in scripting mayhem as the three battle through the Civil War, the romance of Rhett and Scarlett, the deaths of Scarlet’s husbands, up until Rhett’s final, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
The performances by Brown, Bryant and Vest are so slick that on opening night they actually were guilty of anticipating their lines. They knew where the jokes were, and at times were just in a hurry to get to them. Fast-talking Ridgway captured the aura of a 1930’s “Girl Friday.” And kudos to the unnamed costume designer for the gold toe socks worn by Bryant and Brown.
The comedic highlights of the show are the reenactments (by Brown and Vest) from the book, especially the one involving the birthing of Melanie’s baby, with Scarlett anguishing as she awaits the arrival of slave girl Prissy and a doctor. When an argument ensues about Scarlet’s slapping of Prissy, director Stephanie Coltrin cleverly stages a tussle between our three protagonists, seamlessly incorporating Fleming’s ideas on camera placement to lessen the severity of a white woman slapping a black girl.
A major weakness in the piece is the playwright’s inclusion, despite a tight time frame (a five-day deadline to get this film script done), of thematic side trips that involve the constant diatribes of Ben Hecht, a committed anti-fascist, against the laissez faire attitude of Selznick, a successful producer who just wants to get along with everybody. (The two, both Jewish men, have an ongoing argument about the status of Jews in the United States and in Hollywood.)
The three also take cheap shots at Hollywood itself. The second act jarringly incorporates a series of mini-theses on child abuse, sexism, and women’s rights. It is a relief when they finally get back to 1938 to discuss the film’s finale, arguing over whether to end the movie with Scarlet’s simple statement, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura; Thu.-Fri., 8 p.m; Sat., 2 & 8p.m.; Sun, 2 p.m.; through Sept. 18. (805) 667-175. Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission.