Shaping Scarlett: A Review of the Cape Playhouse's "Moonlight & Magnolias"

Left to right: Dan Butler, Mark Zimmerman and Brad Oscar. Photo courtesy of Jered Fournier.

by Maggie Kulbokas

"Gone With the Wind" is undeniably a masterpiece. It won eight Academy Awards and was named the fourth greatest American film of the 20th century by the American Film Institute (AFI).

It is known as an epic tour-de-force and Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick's magnum opus. But how did this iconic symbol of the embittered Civil War South make it to the silver screen?

It wasn't easy--that's for sure.  In 1939 Selznick purchased the rights to Margaret Mitchell's 1936 best-selling novel and embarked on producing one of history's greatest motion pictures.  But the production was riddled with trouble from the start.  The search for the perfect leading lady, an unworkable screenplay and the wrong director were all obstacles hampering Selznick's dream.  It was time for drastic thinking and drastic actions.  Selznick's answer? Lock himself, screenwriter Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming in his office for five days, non-stop, with only a typewriter and some bananas and peanuts.

This unusual think-tank is the setting for writer Ron Hutchinson's madcap backstage story, "Moonlight and Magnolias" which opened the Cape Playhouse's 80th season last night to a very enthusiastic audience.

Describing "Moonlight and Magnolias" isn't as easy as saying three men were locked in an office. Selznick saw "Gone With the Wind" as the big one.   His magnum opus--the film that would catapult him to greatness. Unfortunately, few shared his exuberance over the story--including Fleming and Hecht.

Regardless, Selznick pulled Fleming off "the Wizard of Oz" after firing "Gone With the Wind's"  director, George Cukor.  Screenwriter Ben Hecht had never read the best-selling novel. And not only was Hecht unfamiliar with the intricacies of the plot and the characters, as a Jewish man living in the time of Hilter's Germany, he saw a parallel between contemporary events and the Civil War south.  How could there be much appeal in a richly-wrought, positive depiction of slave-owners and Mitchell's morally suspicious heroine, Scarlett?

But the cinematic cogs were in motion, the money invested and the project moved forward gaining some unusual momentum in those five days.  Once Selznick, portrayed by Brad Oscar, sucessfully ensnares Hecht and Fleming, the play really takes off.

But the troubles don't end there.  As the saying goes, "two's company, three's a crowd"--how true when one locks three creative types in a room together!  And let us not forget,  Hecht, portrayed by Dan Butler, still hasn't read the novel, so it's up to Selznick and Fleming to act out the key scenes for Hecht to translate into a workable screenplay.

Hecht is stuck banging away on his typewriter through a good portion of  the play while Selznick and Fleming, played by Mark Zimmerman, take on the novel's many characters.  I found it hard not to giggle (and so did everyone else around me) at Selznick, flitting about the stage as Scarlett uttering a pouty-lipped, high-pitched "fiddle-dee-dee" here and a "fiddle-dee-dee" there.

As one would imagine, this play works best if the audience has seen "Gone With the Wind". Regardless, we all know the famous lines and it is a hoot watching them shaped and delivered in their purest form--as original ideas--before they are worked into the screen play.

"Moonlight and Magnolias" is fast and smooth with only a few opening night hiccups. Hutchinson wrote a very funny play set against a very serious background. The giddiness of the three incarcerated men against the seriousness of portraying some of the novel's more unsavory topics such as slavery and adultery is believable as is Selznick's palpable desire to succeed.

Dan Meeker's elaborate but small set worked nicely and Christopher S. Chambers lighting lent a sense of day giving into night over the five day period.

The exuberant and lively Brad Oscar shines in this comical romp and  Dan Butler and Mark Zimmerman, also veterans of screen and stage, do a nice job keeping time with Oscar's comedic pace.  "Moonlight and Magnolias" is a clever play jam-packed with quick lines and physical comedy.  And I would be remiss not to mention the wonderful Kathel Carlson, who portrays Mrs. Poppenghul, Selznick's overworked secretary who on occasion, pops her harried head into the office to respond to yet another of her boss' outlandish demands with a "yeeeeees, Mr. Selznick."

Bravo, Cape Playhouse, for choosing to open your 80th season with a fun-time winner.

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