by Joyce Carol Oates
Directed by Kurt Beattie
ACT Theatre

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft


Where is that point when a story, told and told again, transforms from being simply familiar to being somehow mythical, archetypal? The tale of Marilyn Monroe seems to me to have become just such a story, and in the remarkable, intimate drama of "Miss Golden Dreams", Joyce Carol Oates brings her elegant, powerful, deeply insightful voice to the telling. Together with an extraordinary performance by Carolyn Baeumler, and brilliant direction by Kurt Beattie, it all seems not only fresh, but transcendent. There may be some unfinished edges, but this is an effort on an exceptionally high level, and a riveting experience throughout its continuous ninety-minute playing time.

The opening scene takes place during the shooting of the legendary nude calendar that forever transformed the life of Norma Jean Baker. Having the play’s nudity occur in the very beginning has the practical effect of removing it as a distraction, but it has a much more important dramatic purpose. In this scene we see, in her own discovery, what she calls "the trance." It’s a transformation, a new state of being while she is in the camera’s eye, that changes a rather bland, ordinary young woman into a fantasy goddess of sensuality and eroticism. It is the discovery of a place where she is not only powerful and central, but where she exists outside her own history, her own terrible doubts and fears. Never again will she go anywhere, or be seen by anyone, without some reference to that wonderful, terrible sphere of enchantment. It is only in that place where Marilyn Monroe can ever really exist.

Carolyn Baeumler is an actress of remarkable clarity and immediacy. This performance is, of course, never an impersonation, but there are enough of the familiar artifacts of personality to remind us of the historic figure, while never forgetting this flesh and blood person before us. Most importantly, she never has an inauthentic moment, and as a result the grand spectacle of this most public life always remains touchingly human. While we certainly see enough of the flashbulb incandescence of public affirmation, she is most heartbreaking in those moments when demeaning, loneliness and desolation rob her of all joy and accomplishment. This is the kind of role actresses live for, and Ms. Baeumler earns every minute of her nearly continuous onstage presence.

Frank Corrado and Peter Crook play all the other people in Monroe’s crowded life, and both actors are versatile and disciplined. It is interesting to note that the characters are identified as playwright, for instance, rather than as Arthur Miller, and as ex-athlete rather than Joe Dimaggio. The point is in roles played in this woman’s life, not a parade of "famous" figures. For the most part that works, although it becomes most strained with John F. Kennedy. It’s pretty hard to ever think of him as "some President".

The direction, by Kurt Beattie, is expert to the point of being invisible. There are so many wonderful choices in small deliveries, minute timings, held moments, that they defy listing. Suffice to say, this script is marvelously served, and we are never aware of how Ms. Baeumler found methods that simply seem always to have been there.

While this is being promoted as a "World Premiere," the script still had some of the appearance of a work in progress. I was always aware that this story was being told by a master writer, a storyteller whose great style and powerful coherence brings originality to the re-discovery of the story. Still, the ending was abrupt and unsatisfying. It was also noted that the character of a child Norma Jean was edited out for this performance, and that possibility is so intriguing that I can’t help but wonder how much it might have added. Certainly, for those who may find the events themselves too familiar, it might add a much less-known voice. Beyond that, it seems to me that the child persona might have brought a richer depth, a poignant counterpoint, to the adult woman who always carried her inner-child very close to the surface.

That is all quibbling about what might have been. As it is, "Miss Golden Child" is a powerfully intimate visit with a woman who refuses to leave our popular consciousness. I suspect there will be some who feel it’s all just too familiar, all been done too much, too many times before. But I asked myself, "if this hadn’t been about Marilyn Monroe, but about some anonymous woman who had similar experience, would I have felt the same way in the end?" My answer was yes. It was the woman who stood before me, whose journey I had been invited to take, that I cared about. I left the theatre enchanted by all that had occurred in the circle of light, in the "trance," but equally moved by the sad, daylight familiarity of the world in which all the rest of us live.

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