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World War II-era Hollywood subject of new Montreal play

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Ellen David is enjoying wading through stacks of research for her latest project as a director, because Moonlight and Magnolias is so improbable yet true.

“It’s kind of like a mad caper. In February of 1939, they shut down production on Gone with the Wind because producer David O. Selznick wasn’t happy with it. He changed directors from George Cukor to Victor Fleming and brought in writer Ben Hecht to doctor the script,” says David, who is directing the Ron Hutchinson comedy July 8-Aug. 6 at Theatre Lac Brome, 9 Mont Echo in Knowlton, an hour’s drive from Montreal.

What makes it out of the ordinary and a worthy subject for a play is that Selznick locked himself and his two colleagues in his Hollywood lot office for almost a week with only peanuts and bananas for sustenance to hammer out a revised script.

Meanwhile, the $50,000-a-day payroll clock ticked on, keeping cast and crew holding their collective breaths.

What went on behind closed doors makes for a witty, thoughtful and even slapstick comedy, stemming from the fact that Hecht didn’t have time to read Margaret Mitchell’s tome of a novel and that the two other men had to act out the story scene by scene while Hecht typed up the new dialogue.

You can imagine the hijinks but also the tensions that smoldered as the participants became more and more stir-crazy, sleep-deprived and hungry.

Along the way, how Jews were mistreated in Hollywood and how blacks bore the racism of the film come into play so that Moonlight also has a message. And Hecht points out, “Half the directors in Hollywood are here because they’ve had to run from the Nazis.” David notes that “people think of summer theatre as light and frothy but you also feel the war brewing in the background.”

It’s an all-star cast with Howard Rosenstein as Hecht, Mitchell Cohen as Selznick, Don Anderson as Fleming and Paula Costain as Selznick’s long-suffering secretary Miss Poppenghul.

The same actors play in repertory with Larry Gelbart’s Better Late about an ailing man finding not-so-comfortable shelter with his ex-wife and her husband. That play’s director Luciana Burcheri cast in tandem with David to ensure the actors could do double duty. “They’re going to literally be split personalities because their characters are so different from one play to the other and that’s great fun for an actor,” says the director who marks her third time staging at Lac Brome after a string of acting engagements there.

David recently had three screen appearances in noteworthy films. She played the male lead’s mother in the Oscar-nominated Brooklyn, and she acted in François Jaros’ Oh What a Wonderful Feeling, the only Canadian short film to make it into critics’ week at Cannes.

She was also in Francesco Giannini’s short sci-fi film about the fate of the Earth following a solar flare. It has been accepted by the Fantasia International Film Festival.

Now in the prime of her career, David won the ACTRA Award of Excellence in 2015, an honour bestowed in the past on names like Walter Massey and William Shatner.

Montrealers will see her onstage again at the Segal Centre Sept. 11-Oct. 2 when she plays the mother and other roles in My Name is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner based on the Chaim Potok novel. “Alex Poch-Goldin who plays the father was previously in the role of my husband in After the Orchard at the National Arts Centre. It’s like, ‘Honey, I’m home!’” she says.

After Asher Lev has a second run in Winnipeg, David dons her director’s hat once more at Centaur Theatre for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park. Meanwhile, she is still cultivating the magnolias.