Servings of Nostalgia

Two fine plays take Tucsonans back in time

Two generous helpings of nostalgia are currently being served up on Tucson's stages—in both light and dark varieties.

The Invisible Theatre is dishing up Moonlight and Magnolias as the first production of its 40th anniversary season, and the flavor is light, sweet and frothy, with a little bit of kick. The play is about three brilliant men colliding in a small room as they work to create something monumental—and the production itself offers three talented men colliding on a small stage as they create a high-energy evening of theater.

Playwright Ron Hutchinson spins his tale from a forgotten morsel of Hollywood history: After three weeks of filming, producer David O. Selznick halted production on Gone With the Wind. He brought in a new director, Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), and a new screenwriter, Ben Hecht (Some Like It Hot), and locked himself in a room with them for five days until they produced a new screenplay.

A little post-show research confirmed that some of the most bizarre details in the play are historically accurate. A diet limited to peanuts and bananas? Selznick and Fleming acting out scenes for Hecht, who had never read Margaret Mitchell's epic novel? A clear case of life imitating farce.

Under Betsy Kruse Craig's capable hand, the crack acting ensemble provides high-energy performances that keep the show cooking.

Dwayne Palmer, as Selznick, is the show's maniacal protagonist. Haunted by his father's financial failure and his own outsider status as a Jew, he seems to make impossible things happen by sheer force of will. Palmer perfectly embodies Selznick's formidable presence, storming around the office set, his face red with passion as he pins down his collaborators with a word or a blazing look.

Most often at the receiving end of such looks is screenwriter Hecht, played by Roberto Guajardo. Hecht is a man of ideas and convictions, but he's at the bottom of the pecking order. He helplessly points out the novel's romanticizing of slavery, the questionable morality of its characters and its rambling plot. Guajardo strikes just the right balance between backbone and sad sack.

In the middle stands the avuncular Terry Erbe as Fleming, the director. A shameless sell-out, he is peacemaker and agitator, loutish, crude and perpetually charming. Erbe brings light and sweetness to an otherwise volatile mixture.

Topping it all off is Victoria McGee as Miss Poppenghul, Selznick's no-nonsense, hard-working secretary. McGee does a tremendous job of gradually revealing the personality and misgivings behind her character's professional façade.

The whole evening has the bouquet of a classic screwball comedy, a sense reinforced by Maryann Trombino's period costumes and James Blair and Susan Claassen's Hollywood-office set. Special mention should also be made of Rob Boone's sound design, which includes a brilliant audio montage that conveys the Gone With the Wind movie in sound alone.

Not far from the Invisible Theatre, the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre is offering What I Did Last Summer, a slice of nostalgia that is warm, dark and richly textured, with the slightest bitter undertone.

A.R. Gurney's semi-autobiographical play follows the coming-of-age of 14-year-old Charlie during a summer spent at his family's summer cottage. All the characters you'd expect in such stories are here: the rigid mother, the sweet girl next door, the wise yet eccentric outsider. Gurney puts no new twist on the familiar recipe, but brings a bittersweet compassion to the secret aches of each character.

Director Jeremy Selim guides his actors with a light hand, respecting the integrity of the story. Choices such as having actors pantomime certain actions rather than literalizing everything help emphasize the "memory play" aspect of the show.

Ryan DeLuca makes an excellent Charlie, with his boyish face and expressive eyes. Importantly, he has an engaging presence that makes him likable, even as Charlie makes foolish or unpleasant choices, like cursing at his mother or running away from home.

Leanne Whitewolf-Charlton plays Anna Trumbull, the unorthodox recluse who introduces Charlie to a new way of looking at the world. She believes each individual has untapped potential, and she offers Charlie a job and art classes as ways of exploring where his potential might lie.

Whitewolf-Charlton brings a feisty vitality to her role. She makes it clear that Anna's firmly held opinions come from a lifetime of weary experience. Anna is something of a proto-hippie, and her ideas—on topics ranging from heirloom tomatoes to living off the grid—seem less outlandish now than anachronistic, but Whitewolf-Charlton's confident delivery makes her character seem quite capable of having come up with them first.

The supporting players are equally well-cast. James Conway is a charming rogue as Charlie's best friend Ted; as Bonny, their mutual object of affection, Chrissy Tolley conveys a spirit of perfectly idealized, innocent sweetness. Heather Grace Hancock delivers a smart, believable performance as Charlie's less-favored older sister, creating complexity and growth in what could simply be a minor character.

Anna Lauren Farrell has the difficult role of playing Charlie's mother, Grace. She is working with the handicap of clearly not being her character's age, and she lacks the weight of life experience that would come with having two children and a husband at war. Also, Gurney has created a character who is not particularly sympathetic, hiding behind a thin veneer of propriety. Against these odds, Farrell commits fully to her characterization, and earns herself the opportunity to shine in the second act, as Grace's façade begins to crack.

The genteel goings-on are beautifully framed by Clare P. Rowe's set design, depicting the meandering yard outside of the family's summer cottage. Seating is laid out asymmetrically around three sides, as if we are neighbors gathered for a summer picnic.

David Carr adds flavor with his beautiful, atmospheric lighting, and sound designer Matt Marcus adds the finishing touches with the sounds of summer, including a roller coaster in the distance.

As Tucson finally seems to be taking the turn toward autumn, we enter a season suited to retrospection. Why not indulge in a nostalgic, theatrical treat? There's surely something to suit your palate.

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