Heated Tempers and Scorching Parody in Apple Hill Playhouse’s “Moonlight and Magnolias”

By Eva Phillips

Gone with the Wind was the perfect storm of an unfathomably successful novel, insatiable industry hype, and the biggest names (and egos) in Hollywood in one tempestuous pressure-cooker. Though Gone With the Wind doesn’t quite carry the nostalgic dynamism in the cultural memory of infinitely quotable and reproducible films like Casablanca or Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind is its own sort of juggernaut, leaving an indelible mark on film history.

Among the breathtaking imagery, the outlandish melodrama (Scarlett O’Hara’s curtains-gown, anyone?), the near-absurd plot of romance and anguish in the bellicose Old South, and the over-the-top, Hollywood A List performances, the script for David O. Selznick’s overwrought adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s hit novel is perhaps the most striking part of the film’s legacy. It wasn’t simply that Rhett Butler’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” was arguably the most iconic line of the 20th Century, it was also that the bombastic speeches, the haughty presumptiveness of the self-important characters, and the intense melodrama of desire and heartbreak atop the smoldering ashes of the Civil War transcended iconic in a way no one truly anticipated.

Apple Hill Playhouse’s most recent production of Moonlight and Magnolias is a case study into the chaotic, furious, and ego-besotted brainstorming session of the people who had the most skepticism about Gone With the Wind’s success: the people who made it. The high-energy, snappy production centers around three men—the film’s haplessly devoted producer, David O. Selznick; the writer he has cajoled into working on the project despite no knowledge of the book, Ben Hecht; and the needlessly pompous director, Victor Fleming. Despite Selznick’s rabid, near-unconscionable obsession with making Gone with the Wind, the film is in dire straits–hemorrhaging money, a recently fired director, and no actual script to speak of. When a panicked Selznick brings in his old friend Hecht to bang out a script in mere days while locked in a room with the new director (who Selznick is forcing to scurry between Gone With the Wind and his other little project, The Wizard of Oz), they quickly find that only one of them is enamored of the story, and that this little film might just be an impossible dream.

Moonlight and Magnolias is a play that requires exceptional performances, both because of the relatively small cast size, and because of some of the less palatable moments imbedded in Ron Hutchinson’s original script. The ensemble for this production fits the bill: Matt Mylnarski’s Fleming is delightfully incredulous and arrogant with a hint of hilariously fragile; and Chip Kerr adroitly renders Hecht as curmudgeonly and obdurate (as one assumes an old newsman would be), while believably unflappable in his convictions. Mike Crosby is truly a force to be reckoned with, channeling relentless, inimitable, desperate energy as the repeatedly-thwarted, but no less tenacious, David O. Selznick. Crosby wonderfully captures the wiseass ferocity of the old Hollywood mien while capturing the genuine, unyielding, obsessive passion a creative mind unleashes when it fixates on a project (for better or for worse).

Victor Fleming (Mylnarski), David O. Selznick (Crosby) and Hecht (Chip Kerr) duke it out

Pamela Farneth’s direction is exceptional, as she creates an entire world within the muggy, cramped office of a frazzled producer that is electric and authentic. Her team is expertly-guided under her instruction, and the seamlessness of the piece as a whole makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

There are aspects of Moonlight and Magnolias that do not translate particularly well from the source material (and I’m not just saying that as a Southerner who finds narratives written by Brits and other non-Southerners that cast all Southerners as cousin-marrying, slavery-supporters profoundly problematic). Certain scenes, particularly the prolonged bit depicting the crafting of the infamous Melanie birth scene, are not so much drawn-out as they are completely unnecessary. A white man writing a scene for white men to reenact about the treatment of an African-American female servant will in all likelihood not be done appropriately in some way or another, so potentially should not be done at all. Including the scene detracts from the moments of hilarity and vulnerability that give the play its strength.

All that being said, Moonlight and Magnolias is marvelously acted and directed show that is replete with gut-bustingly funny moments and unstoppable performances. For more information on Apple Hill Playhouse and ticket info, visit their website.

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