'Marvin's Room' is full of caretaking and selfless love

May 27, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The first thing you hear at the Vagabonds' production of "Marvin's Room" is a Disney soundtrack, and you hear more of them between the play's 14 scenes.

The music is a clever choice by director Patrick Martyn, not only because the characters visit Disney World in the second act, but more importantly because it helps establish the skewed world of Scott McPherson's play.

At the center of that world is Bessie, a middle-age woman who has devoted her life to caring for her invalid father and aunt. Near the start of the play, Bessie -- valiantly and affectingly played by Cece Newbrough in her Vagabonds debut -- learns she has leukemia, and her world begins to wobble.

This may sound a long way from "spoon-full-of-sugar"-style Disney, and the appropriateness of kiddie-movie music does not mean this is a Mickey Mouse production. To the contrary, director Martyn carefully captures the uneasy balance between the serious and the absurd that often characterizes sickness and health care in this country.

Admittedly, the script includes plenty of references to this uneasy balance. Bessie's aunt, sweetly played by Margery Germain, suffers from chronic back pain and wears an electronic anesthetizer that also raises the automatic garage door. Bessie's mute father, Marvin, whom we see through a translucent bedroom wall, is a stroke and cancer patient who likes to suck on Yahtzee dice and Parcheesi men, though he frequently chokes on them as well. And Bessie's jolly Dr. Wally -- whose ineptness is cheerfully portrayed by Lane Palmer -- tends to confuse his patients' names, sometimes with the name of his dog.

But the doctor does correctly diagnose Bessie's leukemia and recommend a bone marrow transplant. Since relatives are more likely than strangers to be compatible donors, this brings about a reunion of Bessie and her estranged sister, Lee, and Lee's two sons, Hank, a mental patient (Kurt Herring), and Charlie, a bookworm (Andy Byus).

As Lee, who is studying to be a beautician, brassy Laura McFarland is so different from Newbrough's soft-spoken, lady-like Bessie, it's easy to see why they drifted apart. But it is a tribute to McFarland that she also suggests the kindness that, at some level, unites the sisters.

Or perhaps it is a tribute to the character of Bessie, who, by her example, seems capable of extracting kindness from even unlikely sources. When Lee virtually accuses Bessie of wasting her life by caring for her father and aunt, Bessie replies, "I can't imagine a better way to have spent my life." Later she adds, "I am so lucky to have been able to love someone so much."

In its depiction of the fulfillment of caretaking, or, more broadly put, of selflessly loving someone, "Marvin's Room" crosses over from absurdity and black comedy to seriousness. Playwright McPherson, who died of AIDS in 1992, acknowledged that the play contained parallels to that disease. But more than any specific disease, "Marvin's Room" is about the ability to love, and how that ability represents the best side of human nature. That side is well-displayed in this production.

"Marvin's Room"

Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 12

Tickets: $9 and 10

Call: (410) 563-9135


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