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Persistence pays in mom-son play

Lawrence Toppman
ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

“Don't Cry For Me, Margaret Mitchell” is the play that came out of a smoke break, made an end run around a lawsuit and has settled into the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., through Aug. 16. (See www.bartertheatre.com.)

It comes from the mother-son team of Duke Ernsberger and Virginia Cate, who collaborated on a play about producer David O. Selznick's attempts to redo a script for “Gone With the Wind” with the help of ghostwriter Ben Hecht, director Victor Fleming and a savvy secretary.

Well, one of two plays on this topic with the same four characters. “Moonlight and Magnolias” opened at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2004, when the Charlotteans were already well under way.

“Mary Lucy Bivins, my girl and one of the best actresses in America, gave me a Roger Ebert book of film articles,” Ernsberger said. “One night, I went to the bathroom for a cigarette break and read the chapter on writers, which had excerpts from Hecht's ‘Child of the Century.' I was beating my hands on the wall, I was laughing so hard.”

Ernsberger, 57, and Cate, 93, had never had a play performed after 17 years of labor, but they had a winner. When they saw a blurb for “Magnolias,” his ever-optimistic mom insisted, “Somebody else is doing exactly the same idea. That means it must be good.”

And so it was. The pair convinced Dramatists Play Service they weren't plagiarists and sent their brainchild to Barter's annual new play festival in June 2007. The theater “took it under their wing for months and did a jeweler's cut on our rough diamond.”

And what did Bivins get for her initial kindness? A small, plum role as the secretary, in which Ernsberger says she steals the show every night.

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