The Southern Grail

Jul 26 • ARTSY SMARTSY, TheaterNo Comments on The Southern Grail

Moonlight and Magnolias
Big Dawg Productions
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St
July 28-31, August 4-7, 11-14
$10-$18 •

theaterGrowing up in the South, there are several traditions I learned to regard as sacred from an  early age: sweet tea, good manners and the most revered movie of all time, “Gone With the  Wind.” What I never knew was that the process behind writing the screenplay was something so  entertaining, it was worthy of its own script. Big Dawg Productions will open “Moonlight and Magnolias” this week at the Cape Fear Playhouse, showing a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Holy Grail of the South.

The play is a comedy that takes place during the Golden Age of Hollywood, during the third week of production of “Gone With the Wind.” The producer, David O. Selznik, is deeply dissatisfied with the way the script is transferring onto film. He fires the director, replaces  him with Victor Fleming and locks himself, Fleming and the script director, Ben Hecht, in his office. He tells them that in five days, they must completely rewrite the script into something that fits his vision of the film. The methods they choose are entirely too wacky to be anything but hysterical. The diet they survive on during the five-day, nearly sleepless experience is hilarious enough in its own right.

As we all know, the final product has become more than mere adoration; it continues to represent an entire culture almost a century later.

The witty humor of “Moonlight and Magnolias” is what makes it a true gem, as the imaginations of three very intelligent men clash and meld onstage. The uncredited mind behind the completion of the screenplay, Ben Hecht, is particularly hilarious in his distaste of the Southern setting during the Civil War, especially in the homes of slave owners.

When asking Big Dawg director Ken  Cressman about his favorite scene in the show, it was no surprise to find out laughter is at its base. “While trying to properly transfer the scene where Scarlett O’Hara slaps her juvenile maid Prissy in the face, the three men end up in a slapping frenzy of frustration, fueled by their lack of sleep and overarching disagreements,” he said. “Fleming slaps Hecht. Hecht slaps Fleming. Selznik slaps Fleming. It really is a hilarious scene.”

Cressman was first struck by the show because of the undeniable wit found within the intelligent minds portrayed. He knew that Wilmington couldn’t help but love a play based around a Southern classic of this caliber.

The cast includes Brandon Leatherman (“Rumors”) as David O. Selznik, the producer;  Langley McArol (“Shadowlands”) as Ben Hecht, the scriptwriter; Doug Dodson (“The Beard of  Avon”) as Victor Fleming, the director; and Pamela Grier as Miss Poppenghul, the secretary. In a curious coincidence, Dodson, who was very passionate about playing the role of Fleming, could be Fleming’s identical twin. “If you look at a picture of Victor, he looks exactly like Doug Dodson,” Cressman points out. “All of the actors fit their roles perfectly and do a really great job.”

Interestingly enough, Dodson has been the technical director of Big Dawg for almost two years now. In his research of Fleming, he became fascinated by the legacy Fleming left behind with replacing directors on both “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind.” He is excited to be acting in the show because he is normally so involved in set designing and building. “I guess [acting out scenes from the book] is my favorite part of the play, since I’ll never get a chance to play Rhett Butler again,” Dodson says.

McArol, a local film and television actor, says that working on the witty dialogue in the show has been quite a challenge. Still, it has become his favorite part. He has researched the life of Ben Hecht extensively and shares more with him than just pretending to be the famous screenwriter.

“I’m also a screenwriter,” McArol says, “or trying to be. I share the comedic wit and sarcastic nature that Hecht was famous for.” McArol has been enjoying the intimate space that the Cape Fear Playhouse allows while enduring grueling rehearsals. “Ken is a slave driver,” he jokes (maybe). “Eight hour rehearsals with nothing to eat except bananas and peanuts, seemingly the diet of the screenwriter during a five-day writing binder.

Playing the most high-strung character of the producer, David O. Selznik, Brandon Leatherman is perhaps the most easygoing of all the cast. Although he’d never been in a show with as much depth as “Moonlight” requires of its actors, he decided he would take the challenge on head first by assuming the role of his opposite—who also switches between several other characters. To prepare for the uptight role, the actor says he does whatever he can to get himself into the mindset of a nervous wreck. It isn’t always rough-going, though, as Leatherman’s favorite scenes involve Selznik straightening out the other characters.

“Selznik really comes out in me,” Leatherman muses, “and the other actors and I get caught up in the emotion of the moment. Everything flows out perfectly.”

“Moonlight and Magnolias” opens Thursday, July 28th, and runs Thursday through Sunday through August 14th at the Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle Street. Tickets are $18, $15 for seniors and students,  and $10 for everyone on Thursdays. Shows are at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.

Call (910) 367-5237 to make reservations.

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