When “Marvin’s Room” opened in New York and received its first critical affirmation from The New York Times, playwright Scott McPherson was unable to celebrate in the usual way because his body was receding into the final stages of AIDS. “Marvin’s Room,” ultimately, is the legacy he left behind, and the eloquence of the play, although not about AIDS, draws heavily from McPherson’s experience with the disease. It is the story of a family who reconciles after 17 years due to Bessie’s (lead character) imminent death from cancer. Bessie echoes much of McPherson’s own sentiments when she says, “I’ve had such love in my life. I look back on my life and I’ve had such love.”
This weekend, Basement Arts brings “Marvin’s Room” to the Arena Theater. Director Danielle Stresiand first discovered the work when she was studying abroad in London and felt compelled to bring it to stage as her first directing project. “It was a wonderful actor-driven play to direct, because the dialogue is so brilliant and natural,” she told the Michigan Daily.
The play centers on the reunion of Bessie (Jessie White O’Bryant) and Aunt Ruth (Beth Duey) with the rest of their family – Bessie’s sister Lee (Ardra Ewing) and her two sons, Hank (Zach Dorff) and Charlie (Ben Bass). Charlie is socially inept and Hank has just burned down his family’s home, landing him admittance into a mental institution. Lee and her children come to Florida, where Bessie lives with her and Lee’s dying father, Marvin, because their bone marrow may be the only hope to save Bessie.
Lee’s headstrong and impulsive behavior contrasts sharply with Bessie’s way of life, but both sisters are given the opportunity to finally reconcile their differences. “Watching the play for the first time, one may tend to notice its dark side,” Streisand said. “But I implore you to see past its immediate sickness and foreboding death into the lessons taught and learned by a family trying desperately to find its way back home.” The play is often lauded for its delicate balance of humor and sadness.
Ultimately, what garnered McPherson his notoriety was writing so poignantly, not simply about dying or death, but also about humanity in general, and the important bonds of friends and family. Streisand says, “The play screams out: Live the best way you can. Live with hope and with love.”
“Marvin’s Room” originally opened in Chicago in 1990,where it met critical acclaim before spreading across the country and to New York. The title will be familiar to many audience members from its 1996 film version, which starred Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Leonardo DiCpario and Robert DeNiro. The film, which garnered Keaton an academy award nomination, was also acclaimed for handling cancer without tearjerker sentimentality.
McPherson put the finishing touches on this play knowing that every day could be his last. In the notes of the published version of his play, McPherson commented, “Now I am thirty-one and my lover has AIDS. Our friends have AIDS. And we all take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick. At times, an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, by caring for one another. By most, we are thought of as ‘dying,’ but as ‘dying’ becomes a way of life, the meaning of the word blurs.”