Margaret Mitchell’s publishing blockbuster Gone with the Wind became an iconic American film, but first a screenplay had to be written. Playwright Ron Hutchinson whimsically, hysterically and sometimes seriously turned the Hollywood lore of the scriptwriting into Moonlight and Magnolias, now playing at Colonial Players of Annapolis.
Three weeks into filming, without an acceptable script and slow production work by director George Cukor, producer David O. Selznick — whose entire career was in jeopardy — gambled big. He shut down production and fired Cukor. To replace him, he hired director Victor Fleming (fresh off the Wizard of Oz set and, beneficially, best friend to Clark Gable, who needed reassurance about playing the iconic part of Rhett Butler). Selznick then brought in veteran screenwriter and former newspaperman Ben Hecht to rewrite the script. The catch? The three of them had one week to write, and Hecht had not read the book. For a week the three men acted out the story in search of a script. Their effort is the story of Moonlight and Magnolia.
Colonial Players’ director Ron Giddings weaves physical action into the show, relieving the potential constriction of a one-set show. The play opens a little slowly, without the sense of urgency or panic that Selznick must have felt, but giving Giddings room to grow the emotions of his characters when the play gets into some unexpectedly serious subtexts and conflicts.
For the most part this show is a romp, and you laugh out loud until you think you will cry. The actors are having a blast and their fun conveys. Amazingly, Kevin Wallace manages to simultaneously convey both solid American machismo and Three Stooges physical humor as director Fleming. He plays the man of action when he is not in control and his confusion and attempts to maintain equilibrium are just too funny.
Jim Reiter is masterful as Hecht. Aghast at some of the scenes in Gone with the Wind and not impressed with its melodrama, Reiter portrays a man conflicted between his morality and his commitment to a friend. His droll, undercutting style of wit makes this character very funny. Reiter’s depiction of Hecht has fascinating depth, resembling a slowly peeled onion that leaves the audience crying — with laughter.
Michael Forgetta drives the action as Selznick. The undercurrent of his character isn’t well defined, but he has the rat-a-tat staccato vocal style so popular in 1920s’ and 1930s’ screwball comedies. He also does well creating a cathartic moment, tamping down conflicts between Hecht and Fleming and showing the audience his hidden fear for his future.
The last character in the play is the secretary Miss Poppenghul, played by Kaelynn Miller. Her physical comedy is funny, although its motivation is unclear.
Even the curtain call is sheer joy, a choreographed homage to the movies. Moonlight and Magnolias is unexpected, delightful and a fresh take on an American film classic. Scarlett may have believed that land was all that mattered, all that endured. But this production of Moonlight and Magnolias proves that laughter also matters and endures.
Director and set designer: Ron Giddings. Lighting designer: Shirley Panek. Sound designer: Wes Bedsworth. Costumes: Elaine Claar and Kaelynn Miller. Producer: Beth Terranova. Stage managers: Hannah Sturm and Bob Walke. Properties: JoAnn Gidos.
Playing thru June 30 at 8pm ThFSa; 2pm Su; 7:30pm June 17 at Colonial Players, 108 East St., Annapolis. $20 w/age discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; http://thecolonialplayers.org.