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Theater Review - A mighty wind

What keeps the torrid melodrama Gone With the Wind from being totally Tara-ble? Why should Atlantans — or anyone — treasure a tale that glorifies a slave-holding Southern society and features a self-centered heroine and an inconclusive ending?

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Perversely, the Alliance Theatre's comedy Moonlight and Magnolias never really explains why Gone With the Wind works. By putting Gone With the Wind and Hollywood under a microscope, however, playwright Ron Hutchinson discovers many funny jokes and a few uncomfortable truths about the creative process.

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Based on Los Angeles legend, the play depicts how frantic producer David O. Selznick (Thomas Sadoski) halted production of Gone With the Wind and enlisted idealistic Ben Hecht (David Pittu) to rewrite the script — even though Hecht never read the book. For five increasingly strung-out days, Selznick locks himself away with Hecht and macho, anti-intellectual director Victor Fleming (Kevin O'Rourke) to hammer out a screenplay.

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We already know Gone With the Wind to be possibly the most popular film in history, so Moonlight and Magnolias never builds much suspense. It plays more like a juicy, extended footnote to film history. Nevertheless, Hutchinson crafts snappy patter — Hecht asks, "Does it have to be set in the Civil War?" — and when Selznick and Fleming act out the plot, director Lynne Meadow achieves the breezy humor of improv night at your favorite bar.

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Moonlight and Magnolias' most compelling moments comes not from its gossipy irreverence to showbiz, but its frequent debates over artistic responsibility. Like the voice of Selznick's conscience, Hecht pleads that they cut the scene in which Scarlett O'Hara slaps slave girl Prissy and argues for cinema's duty to repudiate bigotry. Later, Hecht points out the paradox of Hollywood Jews holding up a flattering mirror to the mass American audience during a time of rampant anti-Semitism.

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The pressures of assimilation and compromise nearly always trump higher aesthetic goals, but Gone With the Wind emerges as a lucky exception, thanks possibly to Mitchell and Selznick's epic visions. Moonlight and Magnolias never proves as rich or passionate as the work that inspired it, but it is amusing and insightful enough that, frankly, you don't give a damn.

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Moonlight and Magnolias plays through Oct. 9. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. $20-$45. Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-5000. www.alliancetheatre.org.