A Marrow Escape

A touching play is diseased by soft directing and ponderous pacing.

Most families have a hard enough time taking care of their own problems, let alone those of distant, ailing relatives. But when a primary caregiver discovers that she has leukemia and can't properly attend to her bedridden father and sick aunt, the proverbial ties that bind the characters in Marvins Room start to look like shackles of responsibility.

In fact, as soon as one side of the family calls on the other for help, old resentments and frustrations rise to the surface like so many open sores -- a situation that makes the clan's physical woes seem less debilitating than its emotional ones. Scott McPherson based the play on his Ohio family's dutiful journeys to Florida to care for elderly relatives, but the piece is less a study in familial discord than the search to secure love wherever one can find it. While the Denver Civic Theatre's production lacks directorial sharpness as well as fully realized portrayals, the two-and-one-quarter-hour effort touches upon McPherson's prescient call to transform adversity into an opportunity for closeness.

The 1991 work, which was produced at Chicago's Goodman Theatre and the Hartford Stage Company before premiering in New York, was completed before its author learned that he had AIDS. Sadly, McPherson died a short time after his story about "the less sick caring for the more sick" bowed off-Broadway; five years later, though, the play found new life in a film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hank, a troubled teen whose Aunt Bess, played by Diane Keaton, needs a bone marrow transplant.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Hank (Bryan Lyles), who's considered the likeliest match for the transplant, isn't too keen on offering up his life's blood for an aunt he barely knows. Complicating matters further, Hank's been incarcerated in an Ohio mental institution ever since he burned down the dwelling he and his younger brother, Charlie (Bobby Frause), once shared with their mother, and Bess's sister, Lee (Carolyn Valentine). Which is one more reason why Lee and her boys haven't gone out of their way to visit the Florida home that Bess (Tracy Shaffer Witherspoon) has turned into a makeshift infirmary for her father and occasionally wheelchair-bound aunt. And, given the clan's litany of ailments, who can blame them? The play's unseen title character spends all day in his bedroom gasping for breath and, for entertainment's sake, bouncing a beam of light off the walls. Dotty Aunt Ruth (Laura Booze), meanwhile, eases the pain of three crushed vertebrae by adjusting the power supply to the electrodes implanted in her skull -- which sometimes has the unintended effect of setting off the garage-door opener. When Lee, Hank and Charlie arrive, the feeling of estrangement is both compounded and relieved by a multitude of jokes, some of them self-deprecating, about various ailments and shortcomings.

Director Warren Sherrill's ponderous pacing and the actors' tendency to wallow in emotions that they should fight against hamper most scenes, making a group of ultra-realistic characters seem merely dull. Some lines, such as Hank's blunted apology, "I'm sorry I burned the house down," seem to arise from a real-enough place. But the overall atmosphere is devoid of any underlying urgency -- and, therefore, true-to-life feeling -- that bespeaks a family in uncomfortable, sometimes riotous, turmoil. Lee, for instance, enters her father's house and glances at his room without a shred of noticeable apprehension. Following a rancorous confrontation in a therapist's office, Lee and Hank end the scene by shuffling aimlessly through the same doorway, as if their pivotal exchange hadn't affected either of them. And Bess divulges the news of her condition while trying terribly hard to force a few tears -- when anyone in her situation would make a monumental effort to squelch any impulse to cry.

Even though their portrayals don't always ring true, however, the actors manage to evoke a general air of empathy and concern. In particular, Lyles and Frause render affecting portraits that are beyond their performers' years. And while the adult characters that inhabit Daniel Lowenstein's nicely detailed setting (complete with a concrete-wall utility room and white-enamel water heater) might not be products of sublime artistry, their dilemma hits home by play's end. Especially when Witherspoon sits up in a child's bed and remarks, "I'm so lucky to have loved so much." During that moment, at least, McPherson's mantra of carpe diem shines with unmistakable clarity.

 
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