Faced with suffering and death, every person must find a way to make peace with the world. According to 70-year-old Ruth, "Nothing happens that God doesn't have a reason for." Trials can be chalked up merely as lessons from God, attempts "to reach down and shake us out of our ignorance." The disruption of ignorance is central to Marvin's Room, Scott McPherson's graceful study of a disjointed family whose idiosyncrasies are exacerbated by serious illness. The play earned a heap of major awards during the 1991-92 theater season and was later made into a star-powered film featuring Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep. T. Schreiber Studio has put together a pleasant—albeit lukewarm—revival, and although the intimately staged production lacks the urgency and emotional acuity to fully realize the play's more intricate themes, McPherson's script is undeniably important and well worth hearing again.
Redemption comes in many forms, McPherson acknowledges, but he refuses to tolerate apathy, celebrating instead the sweet and selfless nature of his heroine, Bessie (Noelle Holly), who has sacrificed much of her life and independence to care for her invalid father and aunt in Florida. At 40, Bessie learns that she has contracted leukemia, and the dutiful caregiver suddenly becomes a patient herself. In need of a match for a bone marrow transplant, she contacts her estranged younger sister, Lee (Jill Bianchini), who flies in from Ohio with two sons Bessie has never met.
Lee, clad provocatively in a slinky wardrobe, has weathered tempestuous relationships with men and maintains rocky ties with her sons. Hank (Michael Osborn), the eldest, lives in a mental institution (we later learn that he burned down their family home), while Charlie, too much absorbed in his own imagination, is failing in school. The quirky family also includes Ruth (Adair Jameson), Bessie's delightfully eccentric aunt, and, of course, Marvin (Donald Wolfe), the bedridden patriarch who makes erratic, unintelligible sounds from his room, partly visible through a blurred windowpane.
Bessie's illness is the catalyst for this unprecedented reunion, and the characters react and interact in relation to her condition. While the script doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of cancer (the wig Bessie wears to cover up the effects of her medication; the awkward, ugly family fights), McPherson's light touch infuses the proceedings with a welcome sense of humor. Bessie's physician, Dr. Wally (Trey Gibbons), for example, is an impossibly absurd figure—opening sterile equipment with his teeth—suggesting just how unequipped we are to deal with illness.
In this production, however, the action rarely feels as imperative as it should. Director Peter Jensen's staging is often static and mechanical, and the actors seem to click into place by the forces of routine rather than any emotional motivation. One of the play's miracles is the relationship that develops as Bessie begins to connect with the troubled, inscrutable Hank. Sitting stiffly on Bessie's porch, however, the two barely register a bond of any kind, and their words ricochet in empty space without energy, lacking the crucial spark that enlivens active communication.
On the whole, Holly handles her performance well, giving Bessie a serenity unmatched by those around her. As her sister (and foil), Bianchini brings bite and sass to Lee, although she sometimes turns her into a caricature drawn too broadly to be believable. The two actresses share an excellent scene in an impromptu late-night kitchen conversation. Here, one can feel the shared history and love that—despite their differences—will forever bond them together.
Osborn channels angst admirably as Hank, while Jameson is delightful as the soap opera-obsessed Ruth. Her devotion to these fictional characters, while unquestionably escapist, makes a strong case for how necessary such diversions—no matter how silly—can be.
Like the mellow, bluish tones of the set, this production is finally both too safe and too sedate, a subdued presentation of an exceptional script. McPherson's play debuted the same year he died from complications of AIDS, and the semi-autobiographical material (he based Bessie on his mother) represents people with broken, tired lives in search of hope and a path through their pain.
Although we never clearly see the titular character, Marvin—whether gasping or laughing—is nonetheless the work's centerpiece. He has been slowly dying for more than 20 years, but he still takes simple, childlike delight in the lamplight his family members refract throughout his room for his entertainment. This vital search for brightness in the face of death is, finally, the play's most important lesson.