The dynamics of a family change dramatically when the caregiver suddenly needs care. That is what happens in Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, the 1990 play that has become a staple of Off-Broadway and regional theater. Bessie (Lili Taylor) changed her life, moving to Florida where she has lived for years caring for her father (the titular Marvin) and her Aunt Ruth (Celia Weston), an older lady who suffers from back pain.
When Bessie gets a diagnosis of leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant, she contacts her free-spirited sister, Lee (Janeane Garofalo). Although the two have not been in contact for years, Lee comes immediately with her two sons. All three agree to be tested to see if they can be donors. The older son, Hank, is a troubled teen in a mental institution for setting the house on fire. His younger brother, Charlie, is a bookworm. Lee is not a loving, nurturing mother and somehow that makes her funny. There’s a humorous scene when she visits Hank and brings M&Ms that she took from his brother. She feeds them to him one at a time. At the conclusion of her visit, she leaves him a few candies on an upholstered chair.
Despite the heaviness of the topic, there’s a lot of warmth and humor in the play. You never see Marvin but instead meet his family. Bessie never complains, nor does she lay guilt, and despite their estrangement, Lee doesn’t hesitate to come when she’s called.
Marvin’s Room is neither upbeat nor maudlin. It’s not depressing despite the illnesses. In fact, the scenes in the doctor’s office are the biggest source of humor. The three female leads are fine. Taylor is tender and soft-spoken. Even when annoyed or disappointed, she’s kind and loving, easily winning the affections of her nephews. Garofalo is good in her Broadway debut as the self-centered Lee. Despite her character’s self-absorption, she never alienates the audience. Weston as Aunt Ruth is quietly funny and ditzy, providing gentle humor.
Although written in the ’90s, the play hasn’t premiered on Broadway until now. Playwright McPherson, who died of AIDs-related health issues, wrote that the play is really about “love and the power of giving yourself to someone else.” That is why Marvin’s Room resonates today as powerfully as it did when it was first written. It’s not about a specific disease or illness; it’s about the love that develops to handle it.