The late Chicago playwright Scott McPherson’s best-known work premiered at the Goodman Theatre 25 years ago; less than three years later, McPherson was dead of complications from AIDS at age 33. In the program for its current revival, Shattered Globe reprints a program note McPherson wrote for an early production, which reads in part: “Now I am 31 and my lover has AIDS. Our friends have AIDS. And we all take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick.”
Marvin’s Room doesn’t deal with the AIDS crisis directly, but in its portrait of a family dealing with terminal illnesses of other varieties, you can’t miss the parallels of sickness offering opportunity to make relationships healthier. Bessie (Linda Reiter) has made a life of caring for her long-dying father, the unseen Marvin, and her aunt Ruth, who’s smiled through a lifetime of chronic pain. (The latter is played with a sly sweetness by Deanna Dunagan, in a total 180 from her infamous August: Osage County shrew.)
When Bessie is, inevitably, diagnosed with her own long-term illness, estranged sister Lee (Rebecca Jordan) enters the picture, arriving from Ohio with her two boys—the older of whom, Hank (Nate Santana), had to be checked out of a mental hospital for the trip after burning down the family home.
The confluence of circumstances can feel contrived and fairly precious—the climactic action takes place on a family trip to Walt Disney World. McPherson was writing soap opera, and he didn’t mind underlining it himself, with frequent references to the over-the-top events on Ruth’s favorite “program.” But it's important to remember, as director Sandy Shinner and a mostly strong cast remind us, that soap is instrumental to good health.
Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit. By Scott McPherson. Directed by Sandy Shinner. With Linda Reiter, Rebecca Jordan, Nate Santana, Deanna Dunagan. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.