Moonlight & Magnolias & Coronavirus

Four weeks ago, I was laid off after a nine-year tenure, a sparkling annual review, and a 14% raise.

“I’m offended for you,” an interviewer told me a week after.

“Thank you,” I replied, resigned in the shared knowledge I was overqualified for the applied-for position. At this point, we were both just enjoying the conversation. “I appreciate that.”

In the subsequent month, I learned a lot about SNAP benefits, multi-tasking during hold times, and how rapidly the job market can stagger during a global pandemic.

“You have confused me with someone who gives a shit,” said Coronavirus—I mean—Victor Fleming, played by the delightful and curmudgeonly hysterical actor Fred Nelson in the Laurel Mill Playhouse production of Moonlight and Magnolias. Fred has graciously agreed to be interviewed for this article.

I’d reached out to his wife, Sascha, for company one weekend I was feeling particularly Final Show Flyerlow. It is not a reach to say she is our community’s matriarch and I had not gone to see her since Christmas eve. I craved laughter and friendship and sparkling rosé, and Sascha has an armory of each. We commiserated over lost loved ones and the layoff. I expressed interest in Fred’s show and she bought me a ticket that night for the final matinee of the production, held this last Sunday, March 15, 2020.

Like many, I had busy St. Patricks’ weekend festivity plans, most of which were disrupted or canceled because professionals were ringing the COVID-19 alarm with increased fervency. Those involved with Moonlight and Magnolias were concerned about turnout—an astonishing development for Laurel Mill Playhouse after a historically sold-out final weekend of the season’s annual production.

Fred, what was it like for you and your production company in the weeks leading up to last weekend?

Fred Nelson and Stephanie Ichniowski

“To be honest, we proceeded through the early days of coronavirus as clueless as the rest of America was. From the first news mentions in late January straight through 3 weekends of performance in late February. Even though the danger was always there (as we now know), we simply were not paying any attention to it until it really exploded in the news, right after the completion of our third weekend.

“On March 9th, I sent a ‘hey, do you think we should pay attention to this?’ message to the cast and crew. We all talked it over and ultimately decided to press on with the final weekend.

“However, we reconvened on Friday morning. A few days of ever-more-dire news had passed, and everyone’s resolve had weakened somewhat. We almost cancelled the entire weekend right then and there. But after getting assurances that the theatre was taking all sanitary precautions, we made the final decision to go that night.”

I decided to go. I made a plan. I wore long sleeves and prepared not to touch anything with my hands. I brought hand sanitizer and was sure to sit within a distance of other audience members. I did not hug those whom I recognized or linger afterward to congratulate the cast and crew. It was an extremely sobering experience. And for more reasons than COVID-19 brought to the table.

Photo Credit: DC Metro Theatre Arts

Moonlight and Magnolias is about Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, played in this production by the impressively energetic Thom Sinn, locking talented screenwriter and close family friend Ben Hecht, represented in nuanced perfection by Gene Valendo, into his office with Wizard of Oz director Fleming (Nelson) to complete the script for the Gone with the Wind cinematic adaption over the course of a five-day contractual quarantine. There’s a catch: Hecht, tasked with writing the script from start to finish, has never read the book.

Neither had I. Nor had I seen the movie. I have never experienced any particular inspiration to. A cinematic commitment to endure at 238 minutes, centralized on a spoiled, slave-owning Southern Belle entangled in a complicated love triangle during the Civil War era? Nah. I’m good.

But, I told myself, it’s not really about Gone with the Wind, it’s about these dudes trapped in writing incubation hell. As a writer myself, the concept in its simplest form is funny. Plus, many personal acquaintances were involved in the production. I counted three in the crew, including Sascha who did a superb job with the set, and I knew two of the four cast members.

So, I went. I anticipated humor, but I hadn’t anticipated how the play would make my heart ache. The truth and relativity of the political and societal bias relayed at the heart of Moonlight and Magnolias is, as it turns out, very affecting. The script does not shy away from the problematic content of Gone with the Wind, of the arguable inappropriateness of the movie adaption during the rise of Hitler, or even the spreading disease of racism already at work in Hollywood at the time. Instead, it faces it full-on, with a fucking war cry, armed with banana peels and peanuts. On the set is a producer, who sees himself as a man with a vision—and is—but willfully blind to systemic bias, a Jewish screenwriter woke to the bias his friend struggles to acknowledge, and an enigmatic director with an arsenal of white privilege to spare.

Fred, you are an outspoken and well-researched individual. What drew you and your friends to commit to this rendition? Was there something particular you wanted it to convey?

Fred Nelson, Stephanie Ichniowski, Gene Valendo, and Thom Sinn

“This play came about quite by accident. Originally we were hoping to do a completely different play, but there was a royalties issue that forced us to divert to this one instead. We started off the rehearsals sort of in uncharted territory. This play requires the actors to have a working knowledge of Gone with the Wind, and it had been years or decades since the last time any of us saw it!

“By the time we got to the opening, we had completely immersed ourselves in 1939 Hollywood. And we began to notice several little details that ensured us we had chosen the right play. For instance – the week we opened was actually the 81st anniversary of the actual event it depicted – three desperate Hollywood honchos locking themselves in an office for several days to frantically bang out the script for the most anticipated movie of the decade.

“Our second weekend happened to include Leap Day, February 29th. We discovered that it was the 80th anniversary of the 1940 Academy Awards – where Gone with the Wind won 8

Hattie McDaniel

Oscars. One of them was for Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress. She the first African-American actress to win an Oscar – and it was rather apropos for us to celebrate that fact on the final day of Black History Month.

“However, because of coronavirus – we also made a slight change in the lines. There was a moment where Thom Sinn (Selznick) and I were talking about movie audiences crammed into seats next to each other – quote – ‘most of them probably tubercular’. The first three weekends we performed that interchange, I kind of broke the fourth wall by glancing out at our own audience. It got a laugh or two.

“However, on the final weekend – we completely dropped the ‘tubercular’ reference. With the uncomfortable week everyone had just endured — it hit just a bit too close to home.”

The performances were exceptional. I was particularly moved by Hecht’s Valendo. He grounded me and validated my concerns with the subject matter with meticulous care. I was completely staggered by Hecht’s performance. Completely, utterly staggered.

Fred, your Fleming was downright hilarious. And physically demanding! There were moments I was genuinely impressed you could stand upright. What was it like to train for slapstick fight scenes?

“Oh, bless you. Our fight choreographer was Tom Plott. We’ve all worked extensively with him for years at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, and comic fight choreography has always been right up his alley. Outside of the fight, I did a lot of rolling around on the floors portraying assorted characters from Gone with the Wind. The trick of preparing for that is: don’t be old. Unfortunately, for the most part, I failed to follow my own advice on this, and am still recovering from assorted sprains and bruises. (It’s called ‘suffering for my art’.)”

Stephanie Ichniowski, Thom Sinn, Fred Nelson, and Gene Valendo

And I would be dismayed to neglect mentioning Stephanie Ichniowski’s Miss Poppenghul (she was also the production Fight Captain #BAB), who’s death-glare of contempt could wither the Coronavirus in its tracks. Stephanie, you are a QUEEN.

But COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, exponential mathematics show a steep upswing in the coming days and weeks. It’s here and it’s real. And people we love so much are in mortal danger and facing the immediate dissipation of their livelihoods. I am desperately worried for our elderly, our immuno-compromised, our service- and medical-workers, our artisans, and small business owners.

After being forced to cancel a couple of productions that ran right after Moonlight and MagnoliasLeaves of America and The Vagina Monologues – Laurel Mill Playhouse is now rehearsing for its next production, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Fred, do you have any thoughts on how to tele-support theatre during the pandemic?

“I fear we’re in a new realm – particularly if this goes on for longer than expected.

“The obvious answer is more virtual audiences. That technology is there and pretty accessible now. But that solution comes with its own problem.

COVID-19, photo credit CDC

“It’s already been proven that live streaming can be monetized. However, that luxury is largely reserved for big corporations – cable companies, movie companies, huge theatres – with flashy content and huge marketing departments to draw viewership. Content from local and community theatre companies is going to pale in comparison, particularly in a realm where this choice of content is placed side-by-side.

“It used to be that going to watch live theatre had its own charm that separated it from watching the tube. Now, low-budget productions may be forced to compete with the next Star Wars or Avengers movie. It’s going to require a huge transformation in the way community theatre companies market themselves to local audiences. I fear that if this goes on for much longer, many of them simply may not financially survive the transformation.”

One final question. How sick of bananas are you?

“We had ALOT of ‘stunt’ bananas onstage. Full plastic ones, and a ton of realistic peels, handcrafted and painted by our stage manager Lori Bruun. I was given one of the few ACTUAL bananas to peel and eat every night, over the course of about five minutes in an exhausted stupor. It was fun figuring out new ways to be frustrated by this supposedly simple process.

“But reverse what you’re assuming by that question. I didn’t really care for bananas BEFORE this production. It’s only through being forced to eat one every night that I developed an appreciation for them!”

Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson was directed by Ilene Chalmers, assistant directed by Ronald Araújo, and produced by Maureen Rogers for the Laurel Mill Playhouse.

1 thought on “Moonlight & Magnolias & Coronavirus Leave a comment

  1. Hey rockstar, I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. I hope you’re well too. The only reason I’m not going to approve your comment is so the WWW doesn’t have free access to you phone number. I’ve saved it & you’re on my list of folks to touch base with. You’re comment means so much to me.


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