Theater Review: MARILYN, MOM & ME (International City Theatre in Long Beach)

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by William C. on February 17, 2024

in Theater-Los Angeles


In Luke Yankee‘s Marilyn, Mom & Me, the playwright-director takes the audience on a ruminative journey based on the complex relationship with his mother, character actress Eileen Heckart, and her recollection of the unique friendship she forged with America’s timeless sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, on the set of Bus Stop (1956), where Heckart also babysat her two sons Phillip — the child in the poster’s photograph — and Mark (Luke was born in 1960). The play within a play within a play is constructed like a Lincoln Logs cabin in which the building materials are made up of multiple short vignettes that time-switch between Luke tape recording Eileen, scenes from shooting the film, Marilyn getting Ella Fitzgerald to sing at L.A.’s Mocambo nightclub, and Eileen’s friendship with actor Rosetta LeNoire, the founder of Amas Repertory Theatre in New York who promoted multiculturalism and racial tolerance.

Alisha Soper and Laura Gardner

Even with some disjointedness as scenes bounce back and forth, and some heavy-handed, on-the-nose dialogue between son and mother later in life, this world premiere, which opened last night at International City Theatre in Long Beach, is downright charming. Above all, you have Alisha Soper‘s knockout performance as Marilyn Monroe. With all the glamor, bravado, vulnerability, sexiness and allure of the troubled movie star, Soper offers one of the most indelible creations you will ever see in the theater.

Alisha Soper

Tough cookie Eileen Heckart, a brilliant character actress, is magically brought to life by a refreshing Laura Gardner, whose deadpan delivery is a mixture of tenderness, toughness, and wit. As Luke sort of interviews his mom forty-five years after the making of Bus Stop, we find she is a difficult person to love. In one recollection, a pre-teen Luke was starring in his first lead role as King Arthur in Camelot, afterwhich Heckart gave him a Sophie’s choice: either be infantilized and accept unblemished and blissful parental praises, or receive as a theater colleague onslaughts of blunt and unfeeling acting notes. Luke’s agreement — however reluctant — to receive tough love led to years of emotionally abusive character-building exercises. In a role ideally suited for him, Brian Rohan — who bears an uncanny resemblance to Luke Yankee himself — demonstrates a dynamic range from youthful naivete to adult melancholia.

Brian Rohan and Laura Gardner

The play is not just a trauma-forward family melodrama. Yankee wraps the bitter pills of his childhood and the grief for his mother’s death with the vital relationship Eileen had with Marilyn. As brought to life by the effortlessly endearing Ms. Soper, the Hollywood icon steps through a time machine and onto the Beverly O’Neill stage. Watching her performance as she struts in various iconic Marilyn outfits — brilliantly recreated by Kimberly DeShazo — is the highlight of the evening. Anthony Gagliardi‘s wigs are also a smart touch.

Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield and Alisha Soper

Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield plays Rosetta, Ella Fitzgerald, and Paula Strasberg, Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach and confidante. Noah Wagner is director Josh Logan, Laurence Olivier and others. Both are fantastic comedy actors who deliver with precision a streamlined approach to their characters. Jacqueline’s portrayal of Ella is filled with reverence and love.

Noah Wagner and Alisha Soper

The design element is cleanliness and simplicity. Stage props are stored in Dan Volonte‘s step-stage, keeping scene changes quick and snappy. However, the bare-bones setting left much to be desired as it did little for the eye. Projections on a large screen upstage establish the setting, but strongly resemble a stock photo library rather than something with more of an artisanal touch. Donna Ruzika‘s light is on point, snappy, and ideally suited for the scenes. Dave Mickey‘s sound design is perfect, as sound cues are unintrusive and marry perfectly to the show’s emotions without getting overbearing.

Brian Rohan, Alisha Soper, Laura Gardner

The stories unfold much like an old family photo album. There is a lot in there, highlights of good and bad memories. Amazingly effective are the time capsules of fascinating entertainment history that few have a glimpse into. It’s not the most exciting piece of theater, but this work pours out love like a puppy readily gives out warm, affectionate kisses. From sweet recounts of Marilyn playing catch with Eileen’s toddler children to Luke’s distressing coming out to his mother, the delights, frustrations, joy, and sorrow are all wrapped together in a soul-baring gift box. Leave your cynicism at the door and enjoy all that Marilyn, Eileen, and Luke Yankee have in store for you.

Noah Wagner, Alisha Soper, Laura Gardner

photos by Paul Kennedy

Marilyn, Mom & Me
International City Theatre at the Beverly O’Neill Theatre
produced by caryn desai
Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, 330 East Seaside Way
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on March 3, 2024
for tickets ($49 -$52), call 562.436.4610 or visit ICT

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