Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Lili Taylor, Janeane Garofalo, Jack DiFalco in Marvin's Room. Photographer: Joan Marcus
When Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room opened off-Broadway in 1990, most theater-goers were thinking of AIDS, the frightening plague that caused the death of McPherson's partner and later his own death. In the 1980's and '90's, New Yorkers saw plays including, The Normal Heart, As Is, Angels in America, Love, Valour, Compassion, all productions concerning AIDS.
While Marvin's Room seems focused on the imminent death of the patient in the next room, it is a play more about love and empathy. Although this family has separated into their individual lives and problems, they manage to overcome fears and inconveniences to join into an uneasy intimacy.
For 20 years, Bessie has been the caretaker for her dying father, Marvin, bedridden in a separate room from strokes and cancer. She also cares for her befuddled Aunt Ruth who lives with them. Aunt Ruth has had brain surgery, which left her crippled with back pain, alleviated by implanted electrodes that she manages with a device that also works the garage door. In other words, if you hug Aunt Ruth too tightly, not only do you cause pain but the garage door goes up and down. Played to perfection by Celia Weston, Ruth tries to help Bessie but is actually devoted to her daily soap operas and is anticipating an upcoming wedding between the lead characters.
Now, however, Bessie has been diagnosed with leukemia and is forced to call her estranged sister, sister, Lee, to travel to Florida and be tested for a bone marrow match. Self-centered Lee is a single woman overwhelmed with raising two sons. The older boy, Hank, lives in a juvenile mental facility after trying to burn down their house. Her younger son, Charlie, a voracious reader, is having serious problems in school. They grudgingly agree to come and here the family finds a way to join together with compassion.
Directed by Ann Kaufman, the play runs at a slow but sensitive pace uplifted by McPherson's gentle quirky humor that prevents morbidity from blanketing the play. The cast works together perfectly, led by Lili Taylor as Bessie, generous and down-to-earth without sentimentality, taking care of what has to be done. "I can't imagine a better way to have spent my life."
In a scene with her nephew, Hank (Jack Difalco), Bessie shows him the attention and understanding that his mother, Lee (Janeane Garofalo) cannot manage. Hank displays the adolescent's disturbed life, able to emit a touching empathy despite his sullenness.
A sweet scene shows young Charley (Luca Padovan), pleased to be part of this new family extension, helping Aunt Ruth with her makeup as they get ready to view the TV soap opera wedding together. Even self-serving Lee steps in to re-fashion Bessie's wig for an updated look. Each family member finds a way to help the others find their way through the darkness that sometimes seems overwhelming.
Triney Sandivak has a supporting role as the fumbling Dr. Wally and Nedra McClude doubles up as Hank's hospital psychiatrist and a local retirement director.
Laura Jellinek designed a large set with turntables and lighting by Japhy Weideman defining various scenes including an opaque screen acting as one wall of Marvin's room. Unfortunately, the intimacy called for is not achieved on the wide American Airlines Theatre stage and while the cast is compelling, the actors do not project their lines, which often end up floating in the air instead of reaching the ear.
As it was in the 1990's, this first Broadway production of Marvin's Room remains timely today as various health care issues continue battling on the political and home fronts.
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street.
Preview: June 8, 2017; Opening: June 29, 2017; Closing Aug. 27, 2017
Cast: Janeane Garofalo, Lili Taylor, Celia Weston, Jack DiFalco, Luca Padovan
Running time: Two hours. One intermission.
Written: Scott McPherson
Directed: Anne Kauffman
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Also appearing in TotalTheater.com