June 18, 2008

Marvin's Room

Marvin's Room is a play that is popular with community theater. The 1996 movie had an outstanding cast led by Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Diane Keaton, Robert DeNiro and Hume Cronyn. Here's my revue of a local production:

The late playwright Scott McPherson’s comedy hit “Marvin’s Room,” continues its run at Cultural Park Theatre for two more weekends. The wrenching, and often grotesquely funny play about family dysfunction and upheaval, takes on the subject of how families care for their terminally ill, and ultimately, one another.

McPherson had a composer’s knack for pastiche, and stitched together a crazy quilt that entwines chaos and comfort. In director Leo Wolfe’s production, the pastiche of McPherson’s comedy is formalized and restated in the set design: two panels of quilts are suspended in a layered backdrop that suggest comfort in the midst of impending mortality. Pieces of realistic sets, a kitchen, a living room, a back yard at night, are woven into, and out of, the design. Marvin, the terminally ill father, never leaves his bedded nook in the nether reaches of his softly lit room upstage. Though semi-comatose, Marvin seems the most normal of characters in this reunion of a family shaken and discombobulated like the letters in a game of Boggle. His all-too-aware detachment from the tragicomedy around him suggests that impending death may be the safest place to be.

The audience at a recent performance was laughing by the third line of the play and found itself unable to calm down as the play’s patches of drama and pathos began to appear. This takes the audience off guard, which finds itself laughing at moments it may otherwise have thought sacrosanct. The off-beat, on-target characters abet the iconoclastic mood, and like the Simpsons, they resonate with our experience of our own. All families, after all, are a bit weird.

Bessie (Lisa Vagner), has been the sole caregiver of terminally ill father Marvin (Jim Otto), and a dotty aunt (Lee Otto), for almost two decades. Marvin and aunt Ruth are dead-enders, both helpless in their own ways, both sustained and protected by Bessie’s sacrificial love. It’s an autumnal world, sunset-hued, and sometimes desperately funny. Aunt Ruth’s pacemaker intermittently opens the garage door, usually when she’s hugged. Marvin’s favorite pastime, a gentle rebuke to Bessie’s propriety, is to watch Ruth flick the beam of a flashlight around the walls of his room. But even Bessie’s frustrations fit like an old glove. “Why can’t you help more?” Bessie complains to dotty Aunt Ruth. “Never mind,” she reminds herself. “You’ll just make a mess.” But her impatience with her wards are fraught with affection, the kind one feels for a hapless old pet. “Dad’s dying very slow,“ she reflects, “so I don’t miss a thing.”

Into this sweetly eccentric, but oddly privileged existence, a new reality intrudes, testing the mettle of Bessie’s devotion: Bessie herself is diagnosed with leukemia. Her only chance for survival is a bone marrow transplant. Will her sister Lee (Marty Wisher), estranged since their father’s stroke seventeen years ago, be a match? And if not, will Lee’s son, Hank?

Lee agrees, for her own reasons, to pack up herself and her two kids, after springing teen Hank (Andy Tremelling) from the institution where he was placed after burning down his mother’s house. Lee and sons Hank and Charlie (Dylan Dixon) trudge back home to Florida, where they’ll be tested for their bone marrow’s compatibility with Bessie‘s.

Director Gary Wilson’s cast has been honed to vivid relief, and connects as an ensemble. Returning to the theater after a starring role in CPT’s Wally’s CafĂ©, actress Marty Wisher’s comic timing, always deft, is combined here with an ability to project the inner struggle behind Lee’s shallowness. Because Lee’s superficiality is so much fun to watch, it’s easy to underestimate her sacrifice. Setting aside her dream of a cosmetology career, on the brink of graduating from beauty school, to try to rescue sister Bessie is a gesture that has its own cost. Or is the family crisis an opportunity for Lee to flee the unfamiliar challenges of success? Such questions abound in the play’s complex threads of mercy and self-absorption. Lee has become a control freak out of sheer panic.

In an early scene Lee and Hank meet with psychiatrist Dr. Charlotte (LuAnn Guy) to secure Hank’s parole from the institution where he is being treated for his rebellion and pyromania. In the pre-release interview Hank, having long given up trying to communicate with the adults in his life, says exactly what the process requires and nothing more. Dr. Charlotte, exasperated, presses him, “Is there anything you want to tell your mother?” “Ok,” Hank tersely tosses off, without a trace of regret. “I’m sorry I burned the house down.”

When they arrive in Florida, Hank withholds his cooperation with the testing. His bone marrow is  the only turf he controls. But little by little, Bessie wins Hank’s trust. A teen outlaw savant, Hank is a tale-spinner who forces those around him to face unpleasant truths. “Nobody does anything unless they get something out of it,” he tells Bessie. With an adolescent’s knack for targeting adult posturing, while ignoring his own, he exploits the visitor’s high ground and blurts “Don’t you ever wish he would just die!”  Is it a question that Bessie is prepared to answer?

As Bessie, newcomer Lisa Vagner gives a centered, glowing performance. A pilot light that flickers but never dies, Bessie’s self-revelation is a gently gathering light. “I've been so lucky to have been able to love someone so much,'' she discovers. In a devastating moment in the play, Bessie describes the loss of her one romantic love, the circumstances of which challenge the audience to at least appreciate just what it is they’re laughing at, if not stop laughing.

LuAnne Guy’s multiple-character performance is hilarious, and Paul Rose’s bumbling Dr. Wally, though a bit amorphous, has a bedside manner that tends to evoke terror with his every attempt at reassurance. Lee Otto brings her formidable stage presence and wonderful vocal gifts to the role of Aunt Ruth. As the youngest character in the play, Charlie is closest (from his end of life’s timeline) to the non-existence that has liberated moribund Marvin. They’re natural allies. Free from the entanglements that plague the adults around him, Charlie sleepwalks through the play with his nose in a book, hovering above the fray like the sprite in the Fantasticks.

When the lights dim between scenes, the lingering illumination between the quilt panels reveals a cross, an abiding presence, hidden in plain sight. Whatever good samaritanism the family crisis has evoked, it arises from characters who are themselves hardly less desperate than those they are trying to save. And that, at the end of the night, is the source of the play’s authenticity, and grace.