I have some vision problems and have been forced to rely on Lyft for the last year. During that time, I’ve met many interesting drivers — from immigrants to evangelists to bikers — and had lots of humorous, kvetchy, surprising or illuminating conversations. Perhaps the most memorable was with a middle-aged black man who told me he’d returned to Colorado a few years back to help his sister care for their mother, who was suffering from dementia. It wasn’t an easy task. She was confused, paranoid, tended to wander off, and sometimes turned savagely on family members whom she’d lost the ability to recognize. He started describing a night when he was tucking his mother into bed. He teared up a little, and what he said then was unexpected: “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done, the most beautiful thing in my entire life.”
Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, now showing at Vintage Theatre, has some of that kind of beauty. It was first mounted in 1991, when the AIDS virus was ravaging the gay world. McPherson’s partner, Daniel Sotomayer, died of the disease in 1992, and McPherson himself succumbed some months later. Marvin’s Room doesn’t deal directly with AIDS, but certainly the disease was on the author’s mind, and his play focuses on illness, dying and the responsibilities of caring for the sick. While some reviewers have suggested that the zeitgeist is very different now and that the play’s content and moments of humor are out of date, the script still seems entirely relevant. Lacking a comprehensive safety net for the aged, this country is full of middle-aged people, most of them invisible and most of them women, quietly giving up years of their lives to care for frail relatives.
In Marvin’s Room, it’s forty-year-old Bessie who has spent twenty years watching over her stroke-stricken father, the Marvin of the title. He stays in his room throughout the play, his presence manifested only by an occasional muffled exclamation or moan. Also under Bessie’s care, though able to move from room to room, eat for herself and enjoy her soap operas, is sister Ruth, crippled by collapsed vertebrae, her pain relieved by electrical implants. When Bessie herself receives a diagnosis of leukemia, everything starts to shift. Who will help her? Who will take care of Marvin and Ruth if she dies?
Enter Bessie’s long-estranged sister, Lee, with her two sons, Hank and Charlie, summoned in the hope that one of the boys may prove a match for the bone-marrow transplant that is Bessie’s only hope for recovery. Family dynamics now come to the fore. Lee, well played by Jacqueline Garcia, is as flippant and unseeing as Bessie is compassionate, and if her sister’s life has been both shadowed and cloistered, Lee’s has been chaotic. She’s lived with several shiftless men, one of whom was abusive toward Hank. Now both of her sons are troubled, Hank so much so that he’s spent time in a mental institution after setting their house on fire. Lee is willing to contribute what little money she can afford to her family, but adamant about not giving up a jot of her own freedom.
The plot sounds grim, but Marvin’s Room has a fair amount of humor. Anyone who’s had to endure a blood draw from a clumsy doctor because the far more skilled nurse was absent will appreciate the first scene, even if Dr. Wally’s fumbling fingers and general idiocy are over the top. Ruth may suffer chronic pain, but in a lively grounded performance by Linda Suttle, she’s funny and full of life.
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And sentimentality is kept at bay. Bessie might seem too self-sacrificing to be true: She gives the boys an easy affection that charms Hank out of his chronic unfocused rage, and her kindness eventually touches her sister’s heart, with Lee offering the one talent she has to give: skillfully styling Bessie’s synthetic-looking wig. But the character is painted with such gentle, kindly strokes by playwright McPherson, and acted so honestly by Diane Wziontka, that you can’t help feeling for her. Surely we’ve all encountered someone like this in our lives, someone whose innate and unself-conscious goodness makes you want nothing more than simply to be in their presence.
The action isn’t too graphic or grim — you don’t witness intense pain or disability. And though you assume Bessie changes diapers and helps Marvin go to the toilet, none of this is described, nor do we ever witness the fatigue and despair that often plague caregivers. There is a moment when the full terror of mortality does roil the placid atmosphere, and it’s provided metaphorically as Bessie describes the grotesque death of the one man she ever cared for, a traveling carnie.
Director Bernie Cardell has given this script a well-acted, moving, respectful and never maudlin production that allows us to hear the music of the dialogue and provides moments of genuine revelation. At one point Bessie surprises Lee by saying that she feels lucky to be taking care of Marvin and Ruth. “They love you very much,” suggests Lee, who herself has never been deeply loved. “No, that’s not what I mean,” says her sister. “I mean that I love them. I’ve been so lucky to have been able to love someone so much.”
Marvin’s Room, presented by Vintage Theatre Productions through April 5, 1468 Dayton Street in Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.com.