Leah Sessa nails essence of Marilyn Monroe in powerful bioplay at Boca Stage

Marilyn Monroe was clearly one of the most famous, yet least understood film stars in Hollywood history. The rationale – if there is one – for her untimely death in August 1962 has never been explained with certainty, only repackaged in books, films and conspiracy theories that continue to swirl 59 years later.

Boca Stage is now presenting The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe, a one-woman show by Elton Townend Jones. The tale tasks an actor to fully enter the psyche of the uniquely famous MM – and tell the audience the real story of the film queen who was funny, frivolous, seductive and pouty on celluloid, but whose true existence on this earth for just 36 years appears to have been more hell than heaven.

Leah Sessa in The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe, playing through Dec. 19 at the Sol Theatre. Photo by Amy Pasquantonio.

Multiple Carbonell winner Leah Marie Sessa, renowned for her vocal and acting chops in a list of successful musicals, continues a career twist that began a couple of plays ago with a tough-girl role in the musical, Heathers. She later portrayed Harlowe in that eponymously named non-musical at Theatre Lab at Florida Atlantic University, a role that required her to assume the identity of a traumatized woman who loses her sense of feeling and spends hours languishing in a tub filled with water – the only substance that gives her solace and relief.

There are definite similarities and differences between the two characters. While Harlowe is deprived of feelings, Monroe is overly filled with emotions – anger, disgust, fear and distrust top the list as Leah/Marilyn recounts the sordid story of her life – from the time that she, born Norma Jeane Mortenson in Los Angeles June 1, 1926, was abandoned by her mother to be raised by foster parents. She painfully remembers her three unsuccessful marriages, at least two miscarriages, at least one serious sexual assault and battles with abusive substances – mainly narcotics.

Leah Sessa in The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe, playing through Dec. 19 at the Sol Theatre. Photo by Amy Pasquantonio.

The Boca Stage set on the bunker-style Sol Theatre stage is bleak and dark – much like the last days of MM’s life. Leah excellently captures this barren, loneliness in a frank, forthright style, addressing the audience right through what would normally be the fourth wall of a stage.

Director Keith Garsson says the play “strips away the myth of Marilyn Monroe, and we are left with a raw look at the woman as she drifts through the memories of her life and her encounters with lovers and luminaries.”

Leah Sessa in The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe, playing through Dec. 19 at the Sol Theatre. Photo by Amy Pasquantonio.

Leah, whom Garsson says “brings a dynamic mix of sensuality, intelligence and despair to the role as [Marilyn] confides to the audience on the night of her death.”
She does not try to reinvent Marilyn Monroe – and carefully treads the divide between Leah and Marilyn without falling either way.

With Ms. Sessa in control of the scene, there are no breathy Marilyn speeches, no look-at-the-camera winks, no “happy birthday, Mr. President” melody. She doesn’t try to emulate the famous actress; she tries to tell her story. And it works well because she does.

For much of the one-act, intermission-free show, Leah wears a white cotton bathrobe, walking around a dark, forbidding room, throwing herself on a blue-sheet-covered double bed or sitting on the edge of it as she talks of many things – mostly of people she encountered — and events we already know.

She speaks of Bob and John – the Kennedy brothers but doesn’t verbally indict either for disaffection.  She tells of battles with Fox Studios over showing up late for work – or not showing up at all.  “I was sick,” she explains.

Still, Fox fired her. She also had to live with guilt from many people who blamed Clark Gable’s death after filming “The Misfits” on Monroe.

Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller come up in the conversation. Neither provided much husbandly closeness, she seems to lament. DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, “liked to watch sports on TV.”  Miller seemed dour and aloof.

Ms. Sessa’s performance is punctuated by frequent doses of pills. She rummages through a drawer, picking up bottles and reading the labels. She also finds a pill bottle in the pocket of her robe. 

Leah’s level of emotion remains high, but controlled, throughout the play. At one point, while telling of a sexual assault in her youth, she falls onto the bed on her back and flails as if she were being violated at that moment by an unfeeling man.

Leah Sessa in The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe, playing through Dec. 19 at the Sol Theatre. Photo by Amy Pasquantonio.

Unfeeling seems to be a continuing theme. Marilyn never found anyone who understood her feelings – or that actually loved the woman whose death was caused more by loneliness – a horrifically powerful drug – than barbiturates.

The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe plays through Dec. 19 at the Sol Theatre, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Tickets are on sale now for $45, and $50 for Sunday matinee at www.bocastage.net or by calling 561-447-8829. 

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