Take three men, enclose them in a room for a week, feed them bananas, salted peanuts and coffee, give them a task and a deadline and observe the results.
This is how playwrights Duke Ernsberger and Virginia Cate developed their script for “Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell,” which opened Nov. 1 at the Cambria Center for the Arts.
The South Carolina-based mother-son team say that for all of their scripts they start with a title, decide on the characters, and let them take off.
And they take off running in this fast-paced, lively farce, as Rick Auricchio bursts onto the stage with Michael Shanley, a hollering, struggling Steve Reilly in tow.
Reilly plays the grouchy Ben Hecht. Known in his time as “The Shakespeare of Hollywood,” he’s a far cry from a struggling writer. Hecht was rousted from his sleep by Shanley, as movie director Victor Fleming, under orders from the indomitable producer David O. Selznick, whose personality Auricchio nails.
Nancy Green adds some calm to the chaos as Selznick’s briskly efficient secretary, Miss Peabody, whose intermittent presence provides a sparkling feminine touch and a sharp woman’s sensibilities to this otherwise all-male cast.
Selznick is frenetic, under the gun to begin filming “Gone With The Wind,” with everything set to go, save the key ingredient: the script.
During the three years it took to free up Clark Gable for the lead male role of Rhett Butler, Selznick went through every known writer in and out of Hollywood to handle the screen treatment for Margaret Mitchell’s sensational Civil War romance novel. No one quite captured the ineffable something Selznick sought.
Hecht is his only hope, except he doesn’t know the story, having never read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book. “I’m a writer, not a reader,” he mutters.
With the pressure on, the clock ticking, Selznick boosts his deadline-driven energy with handfuls of uppers, or “blue jays, yellow jackets,” as a frazzled Hecht calls them. Auricchio delightfully captures this manic state as he hops about rattling off ideas and directives.
Fleming stays cool until he flips out from lack of sleep and the insufferable diet.
Their efforts were stymied in part by the mores of the time (1939), the strict Motion Picture Code, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s say about the onscreen portrayal of the people it represented.
Men imitating women usually guarantees at least a snicker, and as Selznick and Fleming affect Melanie’s and Scarlet O’Hara’s Southern drawls and the maid Prissy’s dialect while giving voice to the lines that Hecht madly pounds out on the typewriter, they are the subject of ridicule, not the characters.
Under Judith Jesness’ direction, the action moves as swiftly as the fire that engulfed Tara, the family mansion.
Considered a spitfire in her time, author Mitchell, whose journalism career was halted after an ankle injury, wrote the book to assuage boredom. Considered a rebel who loved jazz and speakeasies, how she would react to this play is sheer conjecture, but any tears she might shed while watching this performance would likely be from laughter.
IF YOU GO
"Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell"
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 24
Cambria Center for the Arts, 1350 Main St., Cambria
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