Before his death from AIDS last weekend, actor Anthony Perkins dictated a statement saying in part, "I believe [this disease] was sent to teach people how to love and understand and have compassion for each other."
Scott McPherson's play, "Marvin's Room," which is receiving its Washington premiere at the Kennedy Center, is not ostensibly about AIDS, but it is very much about love, understanding and compassion.
It's also extremely wacky -- in a black comedy kind of way.
The plot concerns a middle-aged woman named Bessie who has devoted her adult life to caring for her invalid father, Marvin, and his sister, Ruth. The latter has an electronic anesthetizer wired into her brain to control chronic back pain, but when she turns the dial, it also raises the automatic garage door. Marvin is a stroke and cancer patient, whose limited remaining pleasures include sucking Yahtzee dice, Parcheesi men and Monopoly hotels.
Bessie seems thoroughly content with her role as their caretaker; in fact, she says, "I can't imagine a better way to have spent my life." Then she discovers she has leukemia. A bone marrow transplant might save her, and because relatives are often the closest match, she re-establishes contact with her estranged sister Lee.
Lee has troubles of her own, however. After burning down their house and part of the neighborhood, Hank, Lee's 17-year-old son, is residing in a mental institution. Or, as Lee tells Bessie, "We call it the loony bin or the nut house to show we've got a sense of humor about it."
Conveying the script's underlying sense of humor is essential to keeping "Marvin's Room" from degenerating into the type of maudlin TV soap opera Aunt Ruth adores. And Mary Diveny's portrayal of Aunt Ruth is a prime example of this humor. Not only is she sweetly goofy -- she dons a party dress and tiara to watch a soap opera wedding -- she's also thoroughly believable; I could have sworn I saw her twin in the ladies room after the show.
Similarly, understudy Christopher Shaw, who played pyromaniacal Hank at Wednesday night's performance, adeptly conveyed the notion that this misunderstood teen-ager is basically a good kid with an unfortunate tendency to go overboard -- hardly a unique shortcoming in this family. (Regrettably, in the role of a hopelessly befuddled doctor, Tim Monsion swallows some of the show's funniest lines.)
Nance Williamson is amusingly over-wrought as Bessie's selfish
sister, Lee. But something crucial is missing from Carol Schultz's performance in the central role of Bessie. Judging from the tone of the rest of the production -- directed by David Petrarca, who also staged the world premiere in Chicago as well as last season's off-Broadway hit -- what's missing is a little looniness. Instead of coming away from Kennedy Center's production feeling Bessie's life of self-sacrifice has been rewarding and fulfilling, you feel she's been a martyr.
Not only doesn't this jibe with the other performances on stage, it doesn't seem to be what the playwright himself is about. An AIDS victim, McPherson has written a program note that bears an unmistakable similarity to the sentiments of the late Anthony Perkins. "At times," McPherson writes, "an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, by caring for another."
That love, coupled with the seeming absurdity of, as McPherson puts it, dying as "a way of life," is the spirit that inhabits "Marvin's Room." Recognizing, and indeed embracing that absurdity is one way of coping, and even though Schultz's Bessie doesn't manage to grasp this, the affirmation at the heart of McPherson's offbeat text shines through.
When: Tuesdays to Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. Through Oct. 18.
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington.
Call: (800) 444-1324.