A crucible of conflict and conciliation, hurt and healing, the family is the focus of American drama’s greatest masterpieces and shallowest soap operas. Marvin’s Room has elements of both. Though it avoids the indulgent bathos of most plays about a family’s response to terminal illness, it nonetheless falls short of its rich potential by succumbing to the manipulative crisis mongering so common in pop melodramas on stage, screen, and television. It kicks off with a brilliant first scene–a doctor’s-office encounter that’s an exhilarating blend of wry, unpredictable comedy and visceral dread–and climaxes in an image of radiant beauty that’s a surefire applause getter. But in between it betrays its promise of originality by piling too many problems on its saintly oddball heroine. Instead of portraying a woman’s strength, it becomes a display of the writer’s ingenuity: what affliction can he cook up next?
These are flaws of inexperience and immaturity. Marvin’s Room is the work of a young man; if playwright Scott McPherson could return to the script with a few more years’ experience behind him, he might address its shortcomings and come forth with a genuinely first-rate play. But McPherson died last November of AIDS, at the age of 33. His death followed a long struggle with illness that to those who knew him and his lover, Danny Sotomayor, echoed the plot of Marvin’s Room, in which a person devoted to caring for dying loved ones suddenly is faced with her own impending death. McPherson’s life and the politically charged issue of AIDS have given this play an aura that outshines its actual strength. That’s fine with me: a heroic rallying point is just what’s needed in the war against AIDS and the bigotry it still stirs. But I wish Marvin’s Room–even in the Goodman Theatre’s beautifully acted production–didn’t fall prey to its own schematic contrivances.
Set mostly in Florida, Marvin’s Room is the story of two estranged sisters reunited by medical emergency. Unmarried Bessie, who has spent many years caring for her bedridden father and crippled aunt, is diagnosed with leukemia. Her sister Lee, a stylish, slightly slutty divorcee with two teenage sons, comes to Bessie’s home to see if she or her boys can donate bone marrow to save Bessie’s life; also on the agenda is what Lee will do with her aged, infirm relatives if Bessie can no longer take care of them. At first mystified and slightly repelled by Bessie’s devotion to her father and aunt, Lee and her 17-year-old son Hank–long at odds with each other–achieve a tentative rapprochement due to Bessie’s near-saintly influence. Meanwhile Bessie is filled with new understanding and appreciation of her love-filled life as she nears its end.
Affirming the value of self-sacrifice without a twinge of cynical self-consciousness, Marvin’s Room can be seen as Christian allegory. At its core is love–the love that binds the Christlike Bessie to her father Marvin (never seen by us, this God surrogate isn’t exactly dead but he’s close to it) and the redemptive love that transforms the selfish Lee, whose long-dormant religious inclinations peek through in the help she gives a group of nuns in baking their weekly supply of communion hosts. “The bodies-of-Christ things,” Lee calls them, in a typical example of the quirky humor McPherson uses to keep his larger-than-life theme on a wry worldly plane. The playwright’s great strength is his ability to find offbeat comedy in dark or possibly pretentious material; with a remarkable ear for dialogue and a sharp but never mocking sense of humor, McPherson creates a family that sounds like a family, and from that fact flows a continuous warm current that suits the author’s optimistic spirit.
But especially in the second act–which brings together the narrative strand concerning Bessie and her father and aunt with the one concerning Lee and Hank, a rebel who’s been freed from a mental institution for this visit–the escalation of the characters’ woes seems increasingly contrived, and this robs the play of the believability its quirky tone has established in the first half. It’s not enough that Marvin be bedridden after a stroke; he must also have colon cancer and diabetes. It’s not enough that Lee be a self-centered career woman–she has to be a cosmetician, a profession that seems to embody superficiality, so that her lack of attention to her son is less defensible than if she were, say, a doctor. When Bessie has a seizure while the family is visiting Disney World, of course she has to be rescued by a guy in a goofy-looking gopher costume. Hank can’t just be a hostile underachiever–he has to be an arsonist. (“Couldn’t you tell him no more TV?” asks Bessie, inquiring about Lee’s methods of discipline. Replies Lee: “He burned the TV.”)
And when she rebuts Lee’s charge that she’s never had romance in her life, of course Bessie must recount a weirdly tragicomic tale of a boyfriend who drowned as she watched from the beach. This anecdote, coming close to the play’s end, carries a special weight: the youth drowned because nobody knew he was drowning–his cries for help looked like laughter. Marvin’s Room, too, places before its audience despair that wears the face of comedy. It’s an unusual work seeking a different perspective on a familiar familial theme; but its authenticity is undercut when we’re made too aware of the author’s scheme.
There’s no faulting the loving production at the Goodman Theatre, however, where Marvin’s Room had its world premiere in February 1990. David Petrarca, who staged the original production in the Goodman’s intimate studio, maintains the play’s intimacy even as he meets the daunting dimensions of the Goodman’s sprawling mainstage. He’s well aided by Linda Buchanan’s huge but never overpowering set–a wall of translucent glass cubes that interact with a network of blinds to create different locations under Robert Christen’s eloquent lighting–as well as Claudia Boddy’s character-based costumes and the lovely jazz sound track composed by Rob Milburn and arranged by Larry Schanker.
Above all, Marvin’s Room glows with the confident compassion of a superb nine-person ensemble. Carol Schultz and Mary Beth Fisher dominate the action as Bessie and Lee, capturing the clash between the sisters’ affection and alienation; Chuck Huber as the standoffish but attention-craving Hank is also memorable. They and the rest of the cast give Marvin’s Room the breath of intense, unpredictable life–even when the play itself runs out of that breath.