Topher Payne shines light on ‘Reno’ in new play

‘The Only Light in Reno’ opens Jan. 9 at the Georgia Ensemble Theatre

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A little-known story involving three superstars and one fateful night together is the subject of playwright Topher Payne’s new world premiere “The Only Light in Reno,” opening next week at Georgia Ensemble Theatre and directed by Shannon Eubanks.

“Reno,” Payne’s 16th play, takes place in 1960, when Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift were filming “The Misfits” in Reno, Nevada. The film was so behind schedule the crew would not let Monroe leave for the premiere of her upcoming movie, “Let’s Make Love,” so the producers of that film had the premiere in Reno instead.

“All these celebs were flying in; it was a huge, big deal,” says Payne. “All over the city, people were trying to find a generator for the theater.”

(Johnny Drago as Montgomery Clift in ‘The Only Light in Reno.’ Photo by R. Todd Fleeman)

Eventually there was a blackout and Monroe, Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and more found themselves in a room together, a turn of events Payne made into a dark comedy starring some of Payne’s favorite actors to work with ― Johnny Drago as Clift, Kate Donadio as Elizabeth Taylor and Rachel Sorsa as Monroe.

This is Payne’s third play with the Roswell-based company, after “Swell Party” and “Tokens of Affection.” Bob Farley and his wife Anita, the company’s artistic director and managing director, respectively, loved the idea after one pitch.

“When Bob and Anita and I got together and were prepping ‘Swell Party’ I told them the story about when all these people were in a room,” Payne recalls. “I couldn’t believe it had not been told. We had not been talking (about future work) but they fell in love with it.”

Having a show in the suburbs hasn’t hindered Payne’s style – he’s been able to run with whatever he’s come up with.

“It allows me to reach people I might not otherwise get a chance to,” says Payne, who premiered his Suzi Bass Award-winning play “Angry Fags” last  year at 7 Stages in Little Five Points.

For a few months after the project got a green light, Payne did nothing but research on the period and the performers. According to Payne, there was the assumption that Taylor and Monroe were rivals and at each other’s throat, when in fact they were not.

“They weren’t really competing for the same roles,” says Payne. Both women were busy making two or three films a year and had not met previously.

Clift was out to his friends and family but not to the outside world. It was a different time back then, when it was illegal to be gay.

“He was discreet, but he would not lie,” says Payne. “He didn’t believe it was people’s business.”

Monroe and Taylor continue to play a role in today’s society of a standard of beauty and style ― and represent what strong women can be.

“Marilyn and Elizabeth had a certain iconography because of their mixture of strength and vulnerability and style,” Payne says. He said he believes the private Monroe was very different than the public one.

“No one convinced her that her opinion mattered,” he says, feeling she was more open with colleagues.

A few other producers have expressed interest in “Reno” when this run is over, says Payne.

Actor’s Express presents ‘Six Degrees of Separation’

Also next week, Actor’s Express opens John Guare’s comedy/drama “Six Degrees of Separation.” It’s directed by Freddie Ashley, the artistic director of the company.

The original 1990 play became a movie with Stockard Channing reprising her role. A New York couple ― Ouisa (Mary Lynn Owen) and Flan (James Donadio) ― are charmed by the young Paul (Jason-Jamal Ligon), who claims to be a friend of their children and the son of Sidney Poitier. They eventually find out the truth; in one memorable scene, Ouisa and Flan find Paul with a naked male hustler.

Ashley chose “Six Degrees” for this season for a number of reasons.

“One is that I think it really speaks to that longing in all of us to find our place in the world, which can seem so vast and isolating,” he says. “I also appreciate that it deals with contemporary issues such as race, class and sexual orientation with a delicate blend of humor and sensitivity.”
LGBT audiences have always had a soft spot for this play, he feels.

“For starters, it was one of the first plays in that wave of gay-themed work on Broadway in the early 90s,” Ashley says. “The character of Paul is gay, but his sexual orientation is not a negative factor in his story. It’s simply part of who he is and is dealt with in the play bluntly but without judgment on the playwright’s part. In 1990, that was still pretty revolutionary on Guare’s part.”

‘The Only Light in Reno’
Georgia Ensemble Theatre
Roswell Cultural Arts Center
950 Forrest Street, Roswell, GA 30075
Jan. 9 – 26

‘Six Degrees of Separation’
Actor’s Express
887 W. Marietta St.
Atlanta, GA 30318
Jan. 8 – Feb. 9