Oldcastle comes up roses in "Magnolias"

Bennington theatre kicks off summer with rollicking comedy

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BENNINGTON — If you've ever wondered how the mind of a great playwright works, especially one who is adept at comedic writing, then Oldcastle Theatre Company had the play for you to kick off its 2017 season.

The Jefferson Award-winning "Moonlight and Magnolias," by Irish playwright and Olivier-nominated Ron Hutchinson, opened June 23. It's directed by Oldcastle artistic producing director Eric Peterson.

The plot is a mix of Hollywood history and fiction, with a penchant for the ridiculous mixed in.

In 1939, legendary producer David O. Selznick (Eli Ganias) shuts down production of "Gone with the Wind," a film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's best-seller. Selznick fires director George Cukor, and needs a new script in one week with a restless Vivien Leigh and press in the background.

He pulls director Victor Fleming (Nathan Stith) off the set of "The Wizard of Oz" to step in. Selznick then calls on a heavy hitter in playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht (Paul Romero) to write a new script. In the background to remind us of just how absurd Hutchinson's creation is roams Selznick's assistant, Miss Poppenghul (Natalie Wilder), the story's only fictional character.

When the group is sequestered for five days to produce the new script, the real fun starts.

Since everyone in the cast has acted at Oldcastle before, the synergy between these four seasoned players and Peterson had to be flowing, because the results, other than a few minor opening night line glitches in a flurry of rapid fire dialogue, were sublime for a comedy.

Ganias huffed and puffed and nearly blew the entire house down with his high-energy blur and bombast as Selznick. He stayed in constant motion as the epicenter of his quaking partners on stage, goading and prodding them deeper into the absurd with every line. Very different from his role in "Talley's Folley" a few years back, but no less engaging.

It's been awhile since I've seen Stith on stage, and there's no question: I missed him. He delivered some of the play's funniest lines with rapier timing and superb countenance. His Fleming was utterly ludicrous, ensconced as he was in a foundation of physical comedy that drew constant laughter, almost, it seemed, at will.

Ah, Romero. What a departure from his parts in "Other People's Money" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," showing off his versatility like never before. His frazzled appearance and facial contortions alone were worth the price of admission, selling exasperation laced with sarcasm that delighted the audience time after time.

And we come to Ms. Wilder, who is so beloved by the Oldcastle faithful that we were a bit concerned about her "smaller" role. We shouldn't have been. Wilder gets more out of a part and a character than should be allowed in Miss Poppenghul, where she pranced in and out of our guffaws with impeccably conveyed caricature and satire.

A little known fact is that Wilder is something of a "Gone With The Wind" fangirl, as she revealed to me in an earlier interview for another article. As such, during rehearsals, Wilder ended up serving as an ersatz dramaturg, advising and informing both cast and crew of details that mattered, and so made this show even better for that.

The play ran 1 hour and 40 minutes, which included a 15 minute intermission.

Richard Howe's set flat out is one of the top three sets I have seen in all my years of attending theater. It drew an ovation of its own before the play began, and rightly so. Stunning work.

Lights by David V. Groupe and sound by Cory Wheat followed their expected solid paths. Ursula McCarty's costumes yet again spoke volumes to the audience and enhanced the exaggeration, especially Victor Fleming's loud hodge-podge, and Miss Poppenghul's stunning red number. Stage manager Gary Allan Poe clearly had the machine humming in high gear.

This play is exactly what summer needs: a kick start of laughter, frolicking and just inane comedy that makes the stomach hurt. Playwright Hutchinson got it right, and the popularity of "Moonlight and Magnolias" since its 2004 release is ample evidence. Oldcastle's actors just confirmed that point, then took the performance to another level - which is why you should go see this play.

"Moonlight and Magnolias" will run through July 9 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St., Bennington Vt. Info: 802-447-0564 or oldcastletheatre.org     

— Follow award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias on Twitter: @TellyHalkias

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