“Moonlight and Magnolias” written by Ron Hutchinson, directed by Ilene Chalmers and produced by Maureen Rogers is playing through March 15, 2020, at Laurel Mill Playhouse in historic Laurel, Maryland.
“Moonlight and Magnolias” is a comedic farce that takes us back to the pre-production days of the 1939 movie epic, “Gone with the Wind.” When producer David O. Selznick (Thom Sinn) fires his director, George Cukor, he brings in Victor Fleming (Fred Nelson) presently two weeks from wrapping up the other epic from that year, “The Wizard of Oz.” He also hires the talented Ben Hecht (Gene Valendo) to fix the script.
Selznick locks himself and the men in the office for five days with only bananas and peanuts to eat replenished dutifully by his secretary, Miss Poppenghul (Stephanie Ichniowski). It only takes a few days for the men to get on each other’s nerves as Selznick and Fleming are asked to act out the characters in the script to help Hecht along.
The plot is not just fun and games. It deals head on with several sensitive topics from the late l930’s. Hecht and his cohorts grapple with the treatment of “Negroes” in the epic. Hecht has a great deal of angst romanticizing slavery and wealthy plantation owners. He also gets into a deep argument with Selznick about anti-Semitism in Hollywood and America during the rise of Hitler in Europe and pro-Nazi feelings in the United States at that time. Add to this a look at the treatment of staff by Hollywood moguls which bordered on indentured servitude at the time, for instance, writers were locked up in buildings to produce scripts without being let out for a breath of air or to go home to families, and you get great conflict that help this play rise to the level of fine comic-drama.
Chalmers does a great job with keeping the comic moments well-paced and the conflicts well-timed and seamlessly acted. She keeps the tension going even though we know how the play will end.
This production is a magnificent treat for the audience. There are plenty of very funny lines, situations and lots of sight gags. The funniest of the latter is staging a slap scene in the movie. All three protagonists get their “punches in.” The acting is topnotch. The actors smoothly and effortlessly delivered their lines which are numerous and often fast-paced. They get physically into their roles as we see flushed faces, red eyes and smeared make-up.
The problems of past productions seem to have been over-acting. Under the sure hand of Irene Chalmers and Assistant Director, Ronald Araújo, the actors do not eat up the scenery, at least not too much. (They actually do “eat” props, literally.) Chalmers does a great job with keeping the comic moments well-paced and the conflicts well-timed and seamlessly acted. She keeps the tension going even though we know how the play will end.
Sinn artfully plays Selznick. He portrays both the self-assurance and the vulnerability of the larger than life producer. Selznick’s father had been a Hollywood failure, and Selznick married Louis B. Mayer’s (MGM) daughter. He has power, but he knows it hinges on his father-in-law’s approval. Sinn also plays Selznick as a man with a sharp wit, and the barbs between the three seem very realistic.
Valendo’s portrayal of Hecht reminded me of a production I saw many years ago of “The Sunshine Boys” with the late, great Jack Albertson. Both actors not only convey their feelings with their voice but with their whole bodies. Valendo’s shoulders slump when he is exhausted, his face flushes when he is upset and his eyebrows arch when he is very angry. Again, Hecht was very clever, smart and creative. Valendo makes us understand that right from the start.
Nelson has a bit tougher role as Fleming who is not very likable. During the filming of “The Wizard of Oz,” the director slapped a sixteen-year-old Judy Garland. He does not care at all whether the picture glorifies slavery or the Klan. He has great vision as a director, but he has no formal training in the field. Hecht often reminds him that he was a chauffeur before he got into the film industry. However, Nelson delivers his comedic lines to perfection, and his banana peel eating scene is one of the best sight-gags in the show.
Ichniowski in the supporting role of Miss Poppenghul is also a superior performance. She brings insight to this sometimes abused, sometimes well treated underling. She, too, is forced to stay at the office for five days. We pity her as she physically shows her plight without the financial compensation that Hecht and Fleming will receive. Ichniowski makes the role more than just a walk-on. Her character is funny, sweet and very patient with her, sometimes, dense boss.
The set is designed by Chalmers and Sascha Nelson. It looked like a Hollywood executive’s office, including a portable but upscale looking bar, a wonderfully fringed couch, movie star photos on the wall, a desk befitting a studio producer and even a chandelier. Sascha Nelson is also listed as the costume designer and for Hair and Make-up. I loved the details on Miss Poppenghul’s wardrobe, for instance, her lined stockings that were worn at the time.
Chalmers also did the Light Design and Nelson the Sound Design. Both compliment the direction and set.
Approving nods go to the Fight Choreography by Thomas Plott with Ichniowski as Fight Captain.
Lori Bruun, Stage Manager, keeps the lights and sound cues well timed as usual.
Chalmers states in her director’s notes that she wanted to do direct this play since she reviewed it several years ago. We are all glad she brought it to Laurel Mill Playhouse. It is a production you need to put on your to-do list.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes with an Intermission.
“Moonlight and Magnolias” will be playing weekends through March 15, 2020, at Laurel Mill Playhouse— 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 617-9906, or purchase them online.
Advisory: “Moonlight and Magnolias” is recommended for mature audiences due to language and some sexual content.
Note: The writer has a theatrical connection with Laurel Mill Playhouse and Ilene Chalmers. However, this did not affect her review.
Note: Peanuts and bananas are eaten quite a bit on stage. If you have allergies to either, you may need to skip this production as the theatre size is intimate.