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Bananas again

Visiting with Charlotte's former first couple of theater

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As the only theater couple who has ever won the Loaf's Actor and Actress of the Year Awards, Duke Ernsberger (winner in 2001) and Mary Lucy Bivins (1994 and 1995) ought to be fixtures on the local scene. Unfortunately, the wellspring of their livelihoods, Charlotte Repertory Theatre, dried up years ago. So Bivins has migrated north, now a member of the Resident Acting Company at the Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia. Between acting gigs at Children's Theatre (most recently in the title role of The BFG), Ernsberger has reinvented himself as a playwright, co-authoring a string of comedies with his 94-year-old mom, Virginia Cate.

Bivins is in her fifth year up in Abingdon, but now is a propitious time to see her at work, since she has a juicy supporting role in Don't Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell. Opening back on May 15 and running through Aug. 16, it's the first Ernberger-Cate comedy to receive a full production in the region.

But it's also the second comedy to open this season regionally that is based on the week-long hibernation of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, director Victor Fleming, and writer Ben Hecht that resulted in the shooting script for Gone With the Wind. The first, Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson, premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2005 and bowed at Spirit Square at the end of April, courtesy of NC Stage Company, which had already presented their version in Asheville two months earlier.

We can now say confidently that Selznick really did yank Fleming off The Wizard of Oz, hired Hecht for the princely sum of $15,000 -- despite the fact that he'd never read Gone With the Wind -- and, after bringing studio production to a screeching halt, decreed that together they would create a viable shooting script on an impossibly tight deadline. If these things weren't so, Ernsberger and his dear mamaw would be easy targets for a plagiarism suit, and no theater or publisher would touch their Margaret Mitchell.

Perhaps the most striking agreement between the two comedies is that Selznick insisted on a strict diet of bananas and peanuts -- brain food -- throughout the seven-day lockdown in his office. The newer script also puts more comical emphasis on the fact that Fleming suffered a burst blood vessel in his eye during the ordeal.

That's typical. Hutchinson and Ernsberger both started with Hecht's memoir, A Child of the Century. Hutchinson also consulted Selznick's son, Fleming's daughter, and Fleming's biographer. Ernsberger/Cate leaned more heavily on their comedic imaginations.

Characterizations are distinctly different. There is more pomposity to this Selznick (Michael Poisson), less vulgarity and steeliness to this Fleming (Rick McVey), and less wise-ass cynicism to this Hecht (Ezra Colon). You won't find nearly as many details about Selznick's tyrannical father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, or the censorship hoops MGM had to jump through back in February 1939. Nor will you listen to competing orations about the contributions of producers, directors, and writers to movie excellence.

The best of the Ernsberger/Cate inspirations come in Act 2 as the three men begin to unravel under the time pressure and fatigue. Pure shtick takes over when Selznick freezes up and "goes torpid" -- a previously non-existent medical condition -- and shortly afterwards when all three guys simply surrender to silliness and the goofy influence of all those bananas.

At just the right moments during the physical mayhem, Bivins makes her entrances as Selznick's super-competent executive secretary, Peabody, underscoring the sight gags. Intermission is entirely Bivins' as the officious Peabody stage manages, boogies to old-time radio music, and elaborately imagines herself as her boss Selznick, donning his jacket, lounging behind his desk, and miming his tirades.

With tight direction from Katy Brown and art-deco set design from Gary Aday, production reaches the same high level you'd expect from either NC Stage or the late-lamented Rep. Through the mountain roads, with a brief sojourn in Tennessee, you can take nearly three hours to reach Abingdon. But if you simply go north on I-77 and west on I-81, you'll add a mere 20 miles of less-breathtaking scenery to your trip while cutting a half-hour off your driving time.

Aside from seeing Mary Lucy in her juicy role, there are additional incentives for taking the ride. With two quaint theaters running afternoon and evening performances -- plus a morning kiddie show -- a Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday excursion gives you a chance to see five shows in as little as 26 hours. We also had Evita, The Who's Tommy, The Cure for Love, and Bremertown Musicians to choose from. With the Virginia Highlands Festival invading Abingdon through Aug. 10, there were additional art and music diversions.

So Sue and I didn't turn back before doing dinner, marveling at the inimitable Chubby Checker's customized trailer, and attending The Cure for Love. Based on an Alexandre Dumas novel and scripted by Jay Berkow, this world premiere production is another Barter gem, one that will be treasured most by those who savor the convoluted plots, world-weary sophistication and profuse sexual innuendos of classic French comedy.

Repulsed by his mistress, Maurice histrionically craves only death. Sensibly enough, his doting mother and his adoring wife contrive to bring Fernande to Maurice's bedside. Besides being the love of Maurice's life, Fernande is the most celebrated courtesan in Paris. No way she can be formally admitted into polite society and the home of the Baroness de Barthele, Maurice's mom. She therefore arrives with an assumed name -- but not an assumed appearance. Maurice's best friend and the Baroness's paramour both recognize -- and covet -- Fernande. Of these two, best friend Fabien is the greater cad, since he aspires to a piece of Maurice's wife as well.

Style under the direction of Nicholas Piper is brittle, effervescing perfection, and the exploits of the superb ensemble are nicely complemented by the elegant set design of Daniel Ettinger and the flouncy, flamboyant costumery of Michele Macadaeg. When Fabien, scorning his rival's cravat, says that the Count looks like he's choking on a peacock's ass, the exaggeration is merely slight.

The Cure for Love and Tommy run through Aug. 10, a day after Evita abdicates. For the full Barter schedule, go to bartertheatre.com.

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