Reno explores a real-life story: the end of the marriage between Marilyn Munroe and playwright Arthur Miller, set over the course of a single night in 1960. And if you’d asked me before I saw this performance which character I was drawn to the most – which of the two I felt the most empathy for – I would unhesitatingly have said Munroe. But this portrayal of the model and actress made me think again.
We all know that this story has no happy ending, and as the action unfolds we witness a chapter in Monroe’s tumultuous life. Her third marriage is clearly on the rocks. Miller (Robert Cohen) and Monroe (Lauren Varnfield) are filming in Reno, the “City of Lost Souls, where people either come to divorce or die.” They’re there to film The Misfits, Miller's first film script, written with Monroe in mind and starring the already-famous Clark Gable and Monty Cliff. The pressure is on the couple to deliver on every level.
There are strong and convincing performances from both actors, and the dialogue moves swiftly between them. Varnfield captures the mannerisms that define Monroe without ever over-doing them, playing them subtly, offering a glimmer of the sex appeal the woman really had. As she alternates seamlessly between utter, neurotic vulnerability and near-psychotic spitefulness, Varnfield superbly captures a nervous, frayed, and self-critical character. Monroe’s torment was clear for all to see.
Cohen delivers and equally brilliant portrayal of the loving, frustrated, and eventually defeated Miller. Miller’s obvious care for his wife comes strongly through; by the end of the piece, he’s so truly tormented by Monroe that it seemed that he really could not tell right from wrong. Cohen’s portrayal makes clear that Miller saw Monroe as much more than a sexual object, though equally, he wanted his conjugal rights. He reacts perfectly to the constant mocking and unkind taunts – the never-ending tirade of cruel comments from the person who was, at the time, the world’s most famous woman.
Echoes of both their fragility and damaged egos were apparent. There were brief but weighty references to miscarriages, overdoses, and a hint of what Marilyn experienced in the foster homes that she was in and out of as a child. It’s a combination which proves a recipe for disaster in terms of the relationship succeeding, amidst the pressures of the media and the world of Hollywood.
But playwright Roy Smiles also allows us to see a side of Marilyn that many gave her no credit for: she was much more intelligent than some would allow her to be, and possessed a sharp sense of humour that she knew how to use well. Her obvious admiration of Gable and desire to be taken seriously as a “great actress” was apparent throughout.
This is a well-performed and well-written production, a fitting tribute to two American legends and iconic figures in Hollywood's turbulent history. By the end of the performance, my sympathies had shifted slightly: if this was anything like the married life Miller truly had to deal with, then it was a difficult life for sure. I was left wondering if Marilyn really had stopped loving Miller – or was it just the drink and drugs talking? As Miller said, “The past is not for changing, only for re-writing,” so we will never be completely sure.