ROSWELL, Ga. – In a hotel room, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift shed the veneer of stardom that has been their shield.
“The Only Light in Reno” is the stage debut of Topher Payne’s latest play. It is the story of one sweltering night in a Reno hotel where Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe have holed up in the only room with power – such is the clout of a movie star – as they contemplate the fire up in the mountains that is consuming the forest, the power lines and, metaphorically, their careers.
Studio execs are desperately trying to finish “The Misfits,” a movie written by Arthur Miller as a love offering to his wife, Marilyn. The marriage is already over, but the production must go on.
Clift is chasing his own demons – his secret life, the auto crash that nearly killed him, the constant pain he still suffers and the painkillers that would ultimately lead to his death.
“The Misfits” is horribly behind schedule, mostly because of Marilyn. But the studio needs her for the premiere of her most recent movie “Let’s Make Love.” They can’t risk letting their leading lady leave in her fragile state, so with typical Hollywood logic, they are having the premier in Reno.
That is summertime 106-degree Reno.
Taylor, a longtime friend of Clift, came to Reno ostensibly to attend Monroe’s new movie premier. But really, she is there to dodge the Hollywood heat for breaking up Debbie Reynolds’ marriage and marrying Eddie Fisher.
So here are three iconic Hollywood stars – at a time when that term really meant something – all with the baggage that life under a microscope brings.
That it all becomes a dark comedy is almost inevitable since Atlanta playwright Payne can’t resist writing against the grain.
“Comedy is just tragedy plus time,” Payne said. “It has a little bit of the bitter and a little bit of the sweet.”
A prolific writer with 16 plays to his credit, he stumbled on this little known story of these three super novae in one hotel room in the Arizona desert. What would they talk about?
“To us, they are these legendary stars, but at the time, they were just working actors. Marilyn was 32 and Taylor just 28, but they could feel the younger Angie Dickinsons nipping at their heels,” Payne said. “This was at a time when female stars were considered over the hill at 30 or 35.”
It would be impossible to capture their lives onstage. Each had a range of life experiences that almost by definition could not be encapsulated in a two-hour play. But it would be possible to capture them in this one improbable and memorable encounter.
“That is why I wrote it in real time. The first act is one hour in their lives. The second act is 45 minutes,” he said. “There is a lot of Hollywood gossip in it. Actors do like to talk.”
The fire on the mountain means the three are stuck together in the only hotel room with a working fan. Payne takes it from there.
He has a strong cast with Johnny Drago as Clift, Kate Donadio as Taylor and Rachel Sorsa as Monroe.
There are also two other cast members. Shelly McCook and Elizabeth Genge appear respectively as Paula Strasberg, wife of Lee Strasberg of the Actors Studio and now Marilyn’s acting coach, and Libby Holman, a former Broadway stage actress/singer and longtime friend of Clift.
This Libby Holman is the same real-life protagonist in Payne’s “Swell Party” that also debuted at Georgia Ensemble Theatre.
“That was just the strength of Libby. That character just was not done with me yet,” he said.
“The Only Light in Reno”
Opens Jan. 9
Roswell Cultural Arts Center
950 Forrest Street in Roswell
Show times: Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; afternoon shows on Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.