In his introductory note on Marvin’s Room, playwright Scott McPherson distinguishes between death and dying: as a child, his father wrapped his car around a telephone pole—this was death. Also as a child, his grandmother gave way to her cancer as he watched Ed Sullivan on the television at the foot of her bed—that was dying. Marvin’s Room, then, is a play not about death but about dying.
McPherson, who shared a hospital room with his lover, Danny Sotomayor, as both succumbed to AIDS, certainly knew his subject matter, and his play, about a caretaker who becomes ill herself, reconciles that strange gap between diagnosis and death, one where “dying becomes a way of life.” Thus, while AIDS is never named in Marvin’s Room, it haunts the proceedings nonetheless.
Bessie (Lili Taylor), a middle-aged woman who has spent most of her adult life shackled to her sick father (the unseen eponymous character) and her crippled aunt, Ruth (Celia Weston), ends up one day as a patient and not a visitor: she has leukemia. A bone marrow transplant appears to be the most viable option, and therefore her estranged sister, Lee (Janeane Garofalo), and Lee’s two children, Hank (Jack DiFalco) and Charlie (Luca Padovan), make the trek down to Florida from Ohio. Inevitably, all the pent-up guilt and jealousies that define a family are unloaded as these five characters navigate the renegotiation of their relationships to one another.
Thankfully, Marvin’s Room is neither histrionic nor glum, and instead has a morbid sense of humor about its story. Early on, Ruth explains that she is afraid of baths because her friend Mrs. Steingetz fell after getting out of one, left dead until her family came down for Thanksgiving: “She’d still be there if they hadn’t run out of towels in the guest bath.” Meanwhile, Ruth’s doctor, Wally (Triney Sandoval), continues to bumble through her tests while amiably deflecting questions about the future.
The cast assembled here, for the play’s first Broadway production, is first-rate across the board. Ms. Taylor is shy, unassuming, her delicate voice betraying only a sliver of the fear Bessie is experiencing; Ms. Weston bobbles along with delightful materteral cheer, as Ruth is perhaps oblivious, perhaps ignoring the emotional context of the scenes she is in; and Mr. Sandoval, bursting with theatricality, serves as a welcome foil in a play of muted performances.
But what strikes me most about Marvin’s Room is its perceptiveness about the sick, about how we treat them and how they feel about it. In an early scene, Lee compliments Bessie’s hair. Bessie tells her it’s a wig. “I know it’s a wig,” Lee replies. “I don’t know why I pretended I didn’t.” This fear about confronting the material realities of death tends to make the process more painful, and I deeply admire how it becomes demystified here, returned to the realm of the mundane and the slightly funny, where it always belonged.