Directed by Sandy Shinner
Produced by Shattered Globe Theatre
Playing in Theater Wit, Chicago
Still Laughing Long After Death
Shattered Globe, a much-respected Equity company, has just started its landmark twenty-fifth season. In a mood for reflection, the company is mounting a play that premiered at the Goodman in same year as their own founding, the late Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room. Both the company and this production are directed by Sandy Shinner, who served as McPherson’s dramaturge, and so is well-equipped to carry on his legacy. McPherson wrote his play about nursing the terminally ill against the backdrop of the AIDS crises, which would shortly afterward take his life. It was critically acclaimed, and adapted into a star-studded film that included Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, and Leonardo DiCaprio. The question is whether Marvin’s Room still works now that that particular crises has passed, and the play’s name is once again more popularly associated with Marvin Gaye’s studio and the song Drake recorded there. The answer is that Shinner has indeed made the play successful, by emphasizing the humor of the piece, with the help of a brilliant cast.
Bessie (Linda Reiter) is a middle-aged woman living in Florida, with a father, Marvin (Larry Bundschu), who has been dying of a stroke for years, and her aunt Ruth (Deanna Dunagan), who has only recently gained the ability to walk, thanks to an implant in her head that also causes the garage door to open and shut when she gets jostled. Caring for her elderly relatives has taken up Bessie’s entire adulthood, not that she’s complaining. But recently, Bessie has been experiencing alarming health problems of her own, and so she pays a visit to Dr. Wally (Don Tieri). While Dr. Wally’s blasé ignorance and unsanitary office are the opposite of confidence-inspiring, a diagnosis of leukemia seems pretty solid. Bessie’s best hope is a bone marrow transplant.
The most likely candidates for a match are her sister, Lee (Rebecca Jordan) and nephews Hank (Nate Santana) and Charlie (Kyle Klein II). However, Bessie has not maintained nearly as strong a relationship with that part of the family. In fact, her nephews were unaware she even existed. Lee has had a difficult life, and is only now on the verge of getting licensed as a cosmetologist. She also currently lives in a church basement, because Hank burned the house down. He resides in a mental institution, but is granted temporary release to supply his test sample. Upon their arrival in Florida, Bessie delicately tries to avoid expressing resentment for Lee’s absence, but Lee’s condescending, hostile attitude toward Hank is too much to bear, and likely driving him toward further rebellion (he turns eighteen in a few weeks, and Lee picks a fight with him over how to ask for a snack like he’s six). Nonetheless, the crises has brought the family back together, providing them with a new chance for bonding.
Bessie’s understated response to her emergency is the key to the humor. Linda Reiter’s performance is a masterpiece of self-control, self-sacrifice, and compassion. When she says she has devoted her life to others only because that is what makes her happy, she is believable, but Reiter also slowly lets out the panic that has been bubbling beneath Bessie’s serene surface. Reiter also grants her character enough of an edge to go toe-to-toe with Lee and Hank. As played by Jordan, Lee’s a hot mess, but somehow endearing despite that. Poorly chosen as her parenting tactics are, she’s undeniably trying to do the best things she can for the people she feels responsible for. Likewise, Nate Santana’s Hank makes up stories because he’s yearning for consistent affection. He has several funny scenes bickering with his younger, nerdier brother, Charlie, who has let his grades drop by retreating too far into fantasy, instead of acting out. Deanna Dunagan as Aunt Ruth gets the wackiest character (the medical professionals, played by Tieri, Deanna Reed-Foster, and Drew Schad, are caricatures, which isn’t to say they aren’t hilarious). Aunt Ruth’s lifetime of home confinement has left her naïve and childish. For example, she pretends Marvin’s nurse doesn’t exist so that he’ll think he’s hallucinating, because she doesn’t want to have to tell him Bessie’s in the hospital. Dunagan makes a lasting commitment to Ruth’s lurching, shuffling, but exuberant physicality, and giddiness over soap operas.
Shinner finds ways for all these characters to grow together. But her biggest accomplishments are the transitions. These brief moments, when an actor remains in-character while changing the scenery or wheeling someone else on, are what most clearly set the play’s comic tone. Imagine Hank sliding his younger brother across the floor, or Dr. Wally’s assistant dashing in to ask another inappropriate question only to find the patients have walked out on him, and you get the idea. McPherson and his collaborators understood the seriousness of their subject, naturally, but darkly humorous moments prevent the story from becoming sappy, and keep it focused on life. There are a few overwrought moments one could take issue with, and as much as I liked Hank, I questioned whether he was actually mentally ill (maybe he isn’t, but living with various debilitating illnesses is such a strong theme of the play, I’m pretty sure he’s supposed to be). Nonetheless, Marvin’s Room is a quite enjoyable work; gritty enough to avoid sentimentality, but hopeful enough to avoid cynicism. After twenty-five years, Marvin’s Room holds up well in such a fine production.
This show has been Jeff recommended.
Playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $33 with discounts for those under thirty, students, and industry on Thursdays; to order, call 773-975-8150 or visit shatteredglobe.org. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through November 14, on which there is an additional 3:00 pm matinee. Running time is two hours, with one intermission.