Only an adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s beloved American Civil War epic tome Gone With the Wind could clock in at more than three hours and ultimately feel rushed.
For her new stage adaptation that premièred at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Thursday, first-time Toronto playwright Niki Landau cut characters, dropped scenes and cleaned up the 1,037-page novel’s inherent racism so her play could tightly focus on the seductive, scheming and unstoppable Scarlett O’Hara. That’s a winning move as actress Bethany Jillard is a beguiling Scarlett, every flirt and flounce in homage to a heroine to love or loathe. Frankly, Jillard makes us give a damn.
But in its haste to keep moving, the unfamiliar with GWTW will be left breathless trying to keep up, especially towards the end when major plot points pass in a blur as the three-hour mark approaches. Longtime fans will have an easier time as their memory, burnished by multiple readings of the book or viewings of the all-time favourite movie, can unconsciously fill in the gaps that emerge in Landau’s condensed storytelling.
As expected, this GWTW looks stylish as Tony Award-winning designer John Lee Beatty frames the action with great lengths of shutters that surround the depictions of life in antebellum and reconstructed Georgia. He employs twin revolves on stage so director Steven Schipper can seamlessly bounce from scene to scene and keep the story moving. The night they drove old Dixie down and Atlanta burned is one of the visual highlights.
Landau makes several tweaks to GWTW story and opens with a brief prologue in which a young Scarlett is being bathed by her servant Mammy who advises that there are two kinds of people in the world: wheat and buckwheat and only the latter can bend in a big storm and survive. Those words come much later and from Grandma Fontaine in the book.
The approaching big storm is the Civil War, overheated talk of which by suitors Scarlett is determined to douse. Even with her considerable charms and vanity, she can’t stop the outbreak of the war between the states or her coming personal battles over the expected behaviour of Southern Christian women, of wills with dashing blockade-runner Rhett Butler and with her divided soul. No matter the fight, her corset is her armour and is never pierced, no matter her despicable acts.
All of the book’s characters who don’t illuminate Scarlett’s bipolar nature are cast aside by Landau for her play, and a lot of those who do still suffer contraction. The indomitable and opinionated Mammy played with great dignity and purpose by Miche Braden is given a respectful but earlier exit after the shameless Scarlett fails to stick up for her when she is target of ugly racial insults.
Many of the other portrayals come across as colourless in comparison to the gloriously bejeweled and begowned Scarlett, who turns the RMTC stage into her personal runway. Her inept husbands Charles (Christopher Darroch) and Frank (Rob McLaughlin) make fleeting appearances but Scarlett’s children by them are non-existent. Melanie, played as good-hearted and ever-sincere by Sarah Constible and Daniel Briere as Melanie’s deadly dull husband and Scarlett’s lifelong crush, Ashley Wilkes, are solid in support. Scarlett’s dotty old-maid aunt Miss Pittypat, who defines the restraints of her sex in pre-Civil War women, is given a swooning portrayal by Miriam Smith.
That places all the weight on the tempestuous relationship between Scarlett and Rhett, and the mercurial Jillard and Tom McCamus shoulder the burden with Southern comfort. Their fiery repartee is a highlight, reminiscent of ’30s screwball comedies in which the better the banter, the more convincing the two were made for each other.
Scarlett is the prototype steel magnolia, the belle with balls, and Jillard reaffirms that through her captivating performance. She displays a fearlessness that Scarlett, an icon for all seasons, would appreciate. The Toronto actress can certainly rock a frock gloriously created in sumptuous detail by costume designer Judith Bowden.
And she falls down stairs like she won’t get up, but it’s that face that again and again communicates Scarlett’s quicksilver recalculations of personal gain. After Rhett proposes marriage, Scarlett is smarting from being told he is not in love with her and becomes outraged when he presses his head to her breasts. Jillard’s pout slowly disappears at his mention of a ring and her countenance suddenly brightens with, "a diamond ring — and Rhett, do buy a great big one." That’s so Scarlett.
Almost as good as renegade Rhett is Tom McCamus, who creates palpable chemistry with Jillard. His Rhett is entirely likable, effortlessly foiling the often predictable Scarlett, knowing what she thinks before she does. His languid delivery and pinpoint comic timing make their exchanges delicious to witness.
The RMTC production, while not the resounding success GWTW-lovers wanted, shares many of Scarlett’s attributes that make her imperfect but admirable.