Stylish comedy, "Moonlight & Magnolias," looks at the making of a Hollywood epic that almost never was

From left, Eli Ganias as Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, Nathan Stith as film director Victor Fleming and Paul Romero as writer Ben Hecht in a scene from Oldcastle Theatre Company's production of Ron Hutchinson's "Moonlight & Magnolias." The comedy runs through July 9.

BENNINGTON, Vt. — Ron Hutchinson's generally witty comedy "Moonlight & Magnolias" — which is receiving a stylish, sure-footed production at Oldcastle Theatre Company — tells the mostly true story of the rescue of an epic film, a true American classic, from the brink of calamity.

Three weeks into shooting "Gone With the Wind," producer David O. Selznick shut down production, fired director George Cukor, pulled director Victor Fleming off the set of "The Wizard of Oz" to replace Cukor and enticed Ben Hecht into writing a brand new script from scratch.

Behind the closed, locked doors of his studio office, Selznick, Fleming and Hecht worked feverishly for nearly a week on the project. They survived on a diet of peanuts and bananas, driven by Selznick's sheer force of will, pride and power.

Hecht began where scores of writers, literary giants — among them F. Scott Fitzgerald — had failed; the last of them playwright Sidney Howard.

Hutchinson's set-up begins with Hecht's assertion, much ti Selznick's incredulity, that he hadn't read Margaret Mitchell's romance set amid the turmoil of the Civil War and so Selznick and Fleming begin acting it out.

For Selznick, the stakes couldn't have been higher. It's not only that public anticipation was running high. As Hutchinson frames it, Selznick's career, his reputation as a successful producer in his own right — he was the son-in-law of powerful movie exec Louis B. Meyer — was on the table.

"Moonlight & Magnolias" is not just about a great film that almost didn't happen. Hutchinson uses this set-up to talk about a host of issues — too many at times, particularly in the early going of the second act when the play, and this production, settles for polemics and bogs down in the process before recovering.

Over the course of their five days in purgatory, the three go back and forth on issues of commerce versus art, artistic ownership of adapted material, anti-Semitism in Hollywood. More critical is Hecht's realization as he works on Mitchell's text that her book is a naive romantic celebration of the old South and its way of life. Where Selznick is determined to remain faithful not only to the spirit but also the letter of Mitchell's book, Hecht berates him for avoiding the opportunity to create a film that speaks out against racism in America.

Eric Peterson has directed "Moonlight & Magnolias" with a deft, certain hand. His expert ensemble, which includes an utterly delightful Natalie Wilder as Selznick's beleaguered secretary, more than rises to the occasion.

Paul Romero's Ben Hecht is a bear of a figure who does not suffer hypocrites gladly, especially if they are on the opposite side of his social-justice-leaning politics. He will call Selznick on his hypocrisy while he is, at the same time, accepting Selznick's check for his labor, although not without extracting something charitable in return. As played by Romero, Hecht's sense of the absurd is sublime, especially when dealing with situations in Mitchell's book that sorely challenge his willing suspension of disbelief.

Nathan Stith's beautifully conceived Fleming is impatient with what he considers Hecht's political and artistic posturing and wants only to get through this portion of the process and begin shooting. '

What truly both anchors and drives this production is Eli Ganias' galvanic Selznick, a man on a mission who will do anything — push, pull, bully, cajole, expose his vulnerabilities, demonstrate his power and authority — to get the movie he wants without compromise. Ganias plays Selznick with a hint of James Cagney cockiness and thuggery. Conscious or not, it works.

Rarely have two hours in a theater gone by with such poise, wit, intellect and, yes, exuberant sense of pure entertainment.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212

Jeffrey Borak is The Eagle's theater critic.