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Brilliant acting buoys ‘Marilyn, Mom, & Me’ at International City Theatre

This review was published in the Long Beach Post's "Hi-lo" culture section on Feb. 25, 2024.

Alisha Soper (Marilyn Monroe) in International City Theatre's "Marilyn, Mom, & Me" (Photo by Paul Kennedy)

Luke Yankee’s autobiographical drama “Marilyn, Mom, & Me” unfolds like the petals of a rare flower in its world premiere staging at International City Theatre (ICT) — if languidly at times. Continuing through March 3, the play’s five actors embody their characters to a tee, bringing to life acerbic actress Eileen Heckart and her co-star, the iconic Marilyn Monroe.

 

The play tells a story within a story, imbuing it with a meaningful complexity by the end. The relationship between Luke (Brian Rohan) and his aged mother Heckart (a precise Laura Gardner) develops as she reveals to him her experience working with Monroe (Alisha Soper) on the 1956 film “Bus Stop,” which Monroe also produced.

From left: Laura Gardner (Eileen Heckart) and Brian Rohan (Luke) in International City Theatre's "Marilyn, Mom, & Me" (Photo by Paul Kennedy)

Heckart is sharp and amusingly condescending to Luke as he records her recollections, especially when he pushes for details on Monroe, whom she mysteriously hesitates to discuss.

 

But as Heckart opens up, we get dramatized flashbacks of the two women, made engaging in large part due to Soper’s enthralling performance as Monroe (whom she has portrayed more than once before), impeccably capturing the actress’s womanly physique, girlish facial expressions and deceptively childlike voice.

From left: Laura Gardner (Eileen Heckart) and Alisha Soper (Marilyn Monroe) in International City Theatre's "Marilyn, Mom, & Me" (Photo by Paul Kennedy)

Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield and Noah Wagner play several surrounding characters solidly, including  stressed “Bus Stop” director Joshua Logan, acting coach Paula Strasberg and even singer Ella Fitzgerald, whom Schofield portrays with warmth and grounded presence.

From left: Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield) and Alisha Soper (Marilyn Monroe) in International City Theatre's "Marilyn, Mom, & Me" (Photo by Paul Kennedy)

Costumer Kimberly DeShazo has Monroe in a tight pencil skirt and high heels in the first act (all the better to wiggle in) and sparkling champagne dress and white stole in the second, all of which Soper wears like second skin. Soper’s performance is especially nuanced in the second act, such as a moment when Monroe addresses the audience of a nightclub to support Fitzgerald as a Black performer.  

 

As Heckart relates her experiences with Monroe while working on the film – including how she played with Heckart’s young sons, celebrated Heckart’s birthday and maintained her poise even in a dangerously unruly crowd – we learn how the friendship touched a deep chord in Heckart and, movingly, how much Monroe also meant to Luke as a young child.

From left: Brian Rohan (Luke) and Alisha Soper (Marilyn Monroe) in International City Theatre's "Marilyn, Mom, & Me" (Photo by Paul Kennedy)

Rohan inhabits Luke well, both as an adult and growing up under his mother’s critical gaze. Luke’s early acting endeavors elicit endless notes from Heckart, to the point of making him cry, and his homosexuality becomes a further point of contention between them.

 

While the story is rich with emotion, staging retains the feeling of a workshop, especially the first act, which perhaps makes sense since Yankee’s play has enjoyed previous success in staged readings.

 

Set design (Dan Volonte) is relatively simple – a couple of chairs and a few props, with only digitally projected backgrounds to evoke locations such as Heckart’s home, a Hollywood studio and a hotel suite in Phoenix, Arizona, where the women travel for filming.  

From left: Noah Wagner and Alisha Soper (Marilyn Monroe) in International City Theatre's "Marilyn, Mom, & Me" (Photo by Paul Kennedy)

Luke and Eckhart also sit during most of their conversations, facing the audience more than interacting with each other, as do Eckhart and Monroe in flashback. Perhaps as a result, the story seems to take a while to rev up, though that does allow time to get to know the characters.

 

By Act 2, though, the story flows more fluidly and becomes wonderfully immersive. The relationships between Heckart and Monroe and Luke and Heckart develop meaningfully, revealing insights about each character. The conclusion, though somewhat drawn out, weaves those threads together in an emotionally satisfying way.

From left: Brian Rohan (Luke) and Laura Gardner (Eileen Heckart) in International City Theatre's "Marilyn, Mom, & Me" (Photo by Paul Kennedy)

“Marilyn, Mom, & Me” is the kind of Hollywood story that could only be told by someone who lived it. Yankee has crafted a beautiful tale from his and his mother’s experiences, embracing the sensitivities of three human beings while touching on issues of feminism, race and gay acceptance. Kudos to ICT for staging this not-to-be-missed world premiere!

 

International City Theatre’s “Marilyn, Mom, & Me” continues through March 5 at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, 330 E. Seaside Way, Long Beach, with shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $49 to $52 and can be purchased by calling (562) 436-4610 or visiting ICTLongBeach.org. Run time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission.

 

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