Monday, September 24

Laughter cheers ‘Marvin’s Room’


By Jennifer Richmond

Daily Bruin Staff

Death can be a scary thing. But the revelations about oneself
and one’s family that come with impending demise can be the most
wonderful experiences in life. In Scott McPherson’s play "Marvin’s
Room," Bessie (Mary Steenburgen) discovers the importance of these
life lessons.

Bessie has been taking care of her dying father (Craig Wells)
and estranged Aunt Ruth (Jane Cecil) her whole life. Now she finds
she has leukemia. Her sister, Lee (Jean Smart) wants to help, so
she drags her two sons, Hank (Chad Cox) and Charlie (Jonathan
Charles Kaplan) to Florida in hopes of finding a match in their
bone marrow.

However, it is not the main plot itself, but each individual’s
story that makes the play so involving and enjoyable for the
audience.

Bessie’s sweet, giving nature will crack a smile on the toughest
poker face. Although almost pitiful, Bessie’s lifestyle has
something that allows the audience to connect with her in one way
or another. Her fear of dying is real, and her overwhelming love
toward Ruth and Marvin are undeniable. But it’s not until she’s
face to face with her sister that she realizes another section of
her life is just as important as the one she’s currently living -
their relationship.

Her relationship with a sister she hasn’t seen in at least 17
years brings laughs and tears from the audience, which can see a
little of themselves in the two women. Bessie wants very much to be
involved with her sister once again. The audience watches
Steenburgen as she tries to support her sister. Her pleas to an
unhearing sibling seem very familiar.

But when Lee does not respond, Bessie turns to Hank as her way
to bring the family back together. He’s as lost as the rest of them
- wanting to be a family again, but afraid to let his true feelings
show. Being locked in a mental institution has made him as hard as
his unfeeling mother. He makes up stories to impress Bessie rather
than tell her how much he hates the institution. Cox’s
insensitivity is understandable, but makes one’s blood run cold,
especially during the first scene with his mother.

Once Hank realizes Bessie’s there to help, he opens up with
cautious ease and eventually becomes a part of his mother’s life.
Cox continues his performance with further insensitive remarks, but
the audience can see he’s trying to be slightly more sensitive.
When he finally agrees to have the marrow test it’s like a crack in
his hard shell. And when Steenburgen yells at him for lying about
the test, the audience can tell he really feels awful about the way
he treated her.

Just like Hank, Lee’s story is enough to tear one’s heart out.
But unlike her son, she tells it with laughs rather than hard
seriousness. Smart’s comic attitude presents a wall behind which
lies Lee’s true feelings of fear, loss and guilt. She has so many
feelings that "they’re like a bowl of fish hooks," she’s afraid to
touch because they all come at once rather than one at a time. And
when she finally allows the tears to spill, Hank’s unfeeling side
comes through yet again, cutting her off with unhearing and
unsympathetic ears.

In this one moment the audience finally sees who Lee really is
and how scared she is for both Hank and Bessie. She needs to be
strong. But that strength has created thick walls in need of
stripping. Unfortunately when a wall starts to be torn down, her
fears kick in and the walls go right back up.

Smart’s portrayal of the sister with bottled-up feelings is
surprising. This character is a complete change from her role in
CBS’ "Designing Women." Her wonderful switch from comedy to drama
proves her range in ability. Smart shows that Lee wants to help but
has her hands tied, and she doesn’t have enough confidence to just
be the caring sister Bessie needs.

It’s obvious this family’s in need of healing and the only way
to do it is through the confessions and talks that make up most of
this black comedy. Although both the lead actresses are serious for
the most part, those few moments do exist when a realization hits,
or a line is said that brings this guilt-filled-family closer to
being a tight-knit family filled with care and love. Both Smart and
Steenburgen act their parts perfectly and make it clear to the
audience through gestures and looks how much they truly care for
each other.

But the beauty of the piece doesn’t lie totally on the shoulder
of the two leads. A lot of the brilliance goes to McPherson. His
ability to create laughter around a serious subject is a gift
deserving of note. Although the laughter decreases as the play
continues, the comedic moments are treasures. It’s scenes like this
that make McPherson’s script the perfect mixture – a delightful
comedy with very real and serious undertones.

STAGE: "Marvin’s Room." Written by Scott
McPherson. Directed by Dennis Erdman. Starring Mary Steenburgen and
Jean Smart. Running through Dec. 4 at the Tiffany Theater. Performs
Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3
p.m. and 7:30 p.m. TIX: $32 – $34.50. For more info call (310)
289-2999.

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