As a culture we are fascinated with the starlets of Hollywood’s golden age. In the past couple of years, there has been a movie on Elizabeth Taylor, a movie on Marilyn Monroe and even a fictitious musical about Monroe in Smash. We just can’t get enough of them. It is fitting that both icons appear in Topher Payne’s The Only Light in Reno, making its world premiere at Georgia Ensemble Theatre.
Set against the raging forest fires in Reno during the disastrous and delayed filming of The Misfits in 1960, the drama sets the stage for diva standoff worthy of a tabloid sensation. Only it doesn’t create one. Instead, Payne has crafted an intense character study that examines the lives of four women and the man who is link between them all.
It begins in Marilyn Monroe’s (Rachel Sorsa) hotel room on the eve of the premiere of her movie Let’s Make Love, which moved to Reno since she was filming The Misfits there. Montgomery Cliff (Johnny Drago) and Libby Holman (Shelly McCook), two good friends, are discussing the evening as well as Marilyn. As Holman, McCook delights with her sarcastic humor and brilliant one-liners. She carries the scene as well as most she is in.
The situation is tame until the lights go out. Marilyn’s acting coach Paula Strasberg, played by Elizabeth A. Genge, brings up the only power cord attached to a generator to the room. From here, the darkness allows for the illumination of inner truths that will jar the ladies and change a few attitudes.
Sorsa, playing the most difficult role in the play, creates a memorable performance and channels the well-known mannerisms and vocal qualities of the actress. Her character, while not a pure impersonation, gives enough to meet and exceed the pre-conceived expectations, presenting an emotionally charged performance that reminds us that the blond bombshell was so much more than her public persona.
On the other hand, Kate Donadio doesn’t attempt to recreate or impersonate Elizabeth Taylor. She brings her own interpretation to the character that is interesting and amusing. While her take lacks the diva-like qualities that Taylor is famous for, she brings an everyday quality that one can imagine she actually had.
Filled with crafty dialogue, the show moves quickly without getting bogged down in the meaty conversations. Yet, it is here where the script tends to become muddy. There is too much information and too many characters undergoing emotional changes. Much of the play becomes buried under its own heft. The detailed character development for each of the play’s five characters is both admirable and impressive in one regard, yet it makes it harder to form a connection with any specific character. None of Payne’s dialogue is lacking, so it would be hard to pinpoint what could be trimmed, but perhaps the opening scene, which takes a bit to get on its feet, might prove to be fertile ground for reshaping.
With its sharp quips, fast-paced dialogue and emotional depth, The Only Light in Reno taps into our fascination with the Hollywood’s golden era. Directed by Shannon Eubanks, the production runs through January 26, 2014 at Roswell’s Georgia Ensemble Theatre. For tickets and more information, please visit the theater’s website. The show’s runtime is approximately two and half hours with a 15 minute intermission.
– Kenny Norton