Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, now being produced at the Indio Performing Arts Center, has some big credentials: It premiered in Chicago in 1990, before heading to runs both off-Broadway and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1992, it won both the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play, and was adapted into a film in 1996, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton.
At the center of the play are two sisters: Bessie, a woman who is taking care of her ill father and aunt; and Lee, a wise-cracking, somewhat slutty woman who has not helped out Bessie and the rest of her family much at all. When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, she is faced with her own looming mortality. Mortality is a topic that playwright McPherson knew all too well: He cared for his partner who died of AIDS, and later succumbed to an AIDS-related illness himself at the young age of 33, in 1992.
Lee comes to Bessie’s Florida home to see if she or one of her two teenage sons can donate bone marrow to save her sister’s life. They also must decide what to do with their infirm relatives if Bessie can no longer care for them. Lee and her 17-year-old son, Hank, have had a tense relationship for years; in fact, the boy has been sent to a mental institution after burning down the house. But Bessie’s wise, loving influence leads mother and son to warm to each other; the door to mutual understanding cracks open just a bit. As Bessie faces her own impending death, she embraces a new sense of gratitude for her imperfect family and for life itself.
Though the play’s main theme is death, there are lots of laughs; McPherson manages to find humor in some very dark places. Subtlety is not his forte, however; for example, the self-absorbed Lee is a cosmetician, a profession that seems to exaggerate her shallowness. Her generous, spiritual side does peek through as she helps a group of local nuns bake their supply of communion hosts each week. Meanwhile, Bessie is battling loneliness, as her one real boyfriend drowned while she and others watched from the beach, thinking his cries for help were laughter. And Bessie’s father, Marvin—confined to bed and seen only in silhouette through the blinds—is not only dealing with the after-effects of a stroke, but is also battling diabetes and colon cancer. We do hear Marvin moaning from time to time and laughing when family members play “chase the flashlight beam” on his bedroom wall.
Pretty much every cast member in IPAC’s production of Marvin’s Room has a few memorable moments. Kirk Geiger, best known for his role in the cult film Sordid Lives, plays Dr. Wally, and is quite funny in the opening scene while trying to draw blood from Bessie, whose panic is rising by the second. Too bad he’s not onstage more often. The always-dependable Louise Tonti (Aunt Ruth) does not disappoint here; she’s hilarious and loveable, and makes us forgive her character’s sometimes-frustrating forgetfulness.
As 17-year-old Hank, Diego Valdez has a great stage presence and some real acting chops. The scenes in which he discusses his possible bone-marrow donation with Bessie, and begins reconciling with his mother, are particularly touching. As younger brother Charlie, Julian Jacobo is adorable and exhibits nice comic flair.
Valerie-Jean (V.J.) Hume (my theater-reviewing colleague here at the Independent) is quite good in her brief scene as the psychiatrist working to bring Hank and Lee together. Domingo Winstead, as Bob, is fine.
The two leads, Denise Strand (Bessie) and Tiffani Lobue (Lee), are strong throughout much of the show. We genuinely feel Bessie’s weariness from the task of caring for Aunt Ruth and Marvin, though we know she loves them dearly. She also skillfully portrays her fears about her terminal diagnosis. Lobue really captures the essence of Lee, and has some nice comic moments—like dumping at entire bowl of candy at a nursing home lobby into her purse. Also, the growing warmth between the two sisters as they get to know each other for the first time is palpable. But like many in the cast, Strand and Lobue occasionally seem to run out of steam. Director Jeanette Knight deserves kudos, though I’d like to see her push the entire ensemble to keep their energy up until the final curtain, as well as pick up their cues a bit.
The set, lighting and sound are all effective, particularly the song selection for set changes.
I recommend seeing IPAC’s production of Marvin’s Room, to remind us that we’re all dying, one day at a time, and that family—and love—is what really matters.
Marvin’s Room is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 6, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $19 to $26, and the running time is just over two hours, with a 10-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5200, or visit www.indioperformingartscenter.org.