Scott McPherson wrote Marvin’s Room while caring for his partner, Daniel Sotomayor, who died of AIDS in February 1992. The playwright himself succumbed to the disease later that same year, at the age of 33. More than just an allegory for the epidemic, this play considers the psychic cost of caregiving—and whether it constitutes a selfless or selfish act, or some combination thereof.
A wasted life?
A revival by Isis Productions, under Neill Hartley’s direction at Christ Church American House, explores those themes with humor and a fair amount of insight. Fortysomething Bessie (Renee Richman-Weisband) has spent the sum total of her adult life looking after her infirm father (the Marvin of the title, unseen but heard) and Aunt Ruth (a very good Susan Moses), a self-described “cripple.” When Bessie receives a leukemia diagnosis, she finds the role of patient an uncomfortable fit, particularly as it requires seeking help from her estranged sister, Lee (Kirsten Quinn).
Even facing death, Bessie struggles to put herself first, a meekness that Richman-Weisband captures well in her performance. Her personality contrasts nicely with Quinn’s brash, saucy conception of Lee, who makes no apologies for choosing life on her own terms over familial obligation. Unspoken resentment roils beneath the surface of their forced congeniality, as Lee lets slip her view that Bessie has wasted her life in service of others. “I can’t think of a better way to have spent my life,” she replies with pride.
The cost of care surely spoke to those affected by HIV/AIDS in the days before it became a chronic disease, when many caregivers were also patients. This idea still resonates. Yet the questions of family, obligation, and loss also transcend a relationship to a specific illness, a point that has only grown as the play ages farther away from the context in which it was written. As Hartley points out in a director’s note, there are currently more than 40 million unpaid caregivers in the US, and they are often family members who make tough sacrifices for their loved ones. Marvin’s Room, which premiered in 1990, resonates across economic, social, and generational fault lines.
Messy, complicated, and real
McPherson’s script makes evident his tragically unfulfilled potential as a writer, but it is still recognizably the work of a novice. His attempts to lampoon the medical profession, largely realized in the person of an inept doctor (played here by Rob Hargraves) who opens sterile packages with his teeth and doesn’t know the word tourniquet, feel juvenile and overly obvious. A subplot involving Lee’s troubled son Hank (Billy Sander, a compelling recent UArts grad), who may offer Bessie hope for a bone-marrow transplant, seems shoehorned in from the world of soap opera.
The production stops short of overcoming all the script’s obstacles, with dragging scene changes that feel like commercial breaks in a television sitcom. The cast—which also includes Meg Trelease and Tyler Motlasz—have a tendency to stand in profile too often, obscuring their facial expressions, and to deliver lines with their backs to the audience. Though the set (by Hartley and Rick Miller) makes nice use of Christ Church’s cavernous space, Allen Clark’s lighting and sound design sometimes underline a point too forcefully.
But the simple, universal power of Marvin’s Room comes through in the end, particularly in the finely wrought work of Richman-Weisband and Quinn. Their sisterly relationship feels messy, complicated, and real. I have no doubt many audience members, regardless of the path that brought them to this play, will find themselves nodding in recognition.
An earlier version of this review misstated the year that Daniel Sotomayor and Scott McPherson died. They both died in 1992.
What, When, Where
Marvin’s Room. By Scott McPherson, Neill Hartley directed. Isis Productions. Through April 13, 2019, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street, Philadelphia. (609) 220-7537 or isisperforms.com.
Christ Church Neighborhood House is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons with questions about accessible seating can email [email protected].