Given a choice of laughing or crying over misfortune, blubbering isn't most people's pick. Not that it's a laff riot, but Scott McPherson's play Marvin's Room was wisely designed to go for sighs rather than sobs over the day-to-day tribulations and occasional terrors of a family facing several health crises.
In this URI Theatre production directed by Bryna Wortman (through October 21), the resigned humor emerges calmly, from the foibles and frustrations of people who forget for a moment that they're having a hard time.
Death bides its time in the background of this play like the Grim Reaper ready to step forward and take a swipe at any moment. The Marvin of the title (T.S. McCormick) is literally just a sensed-more-than-seen presence, moaning wordlessly in bed behind the gauzy scrim of a living room wall.
Marvin serves as a metaphor more than an active presence and so does the playwright who, healthy when he finished writing this play, was dead from AIDS two years later at age 33.
Two sisters circle around the issues. Bessie (Sarah Leach) has been the caretaker for their father, who has "been dying for 20 years," as she casually puts it. "He's doing it real slow, so I don't miss anything" (read that last wisecrack as sarcastic rather than bitter, at least in this production's interpretation). Sister Lee (Christine O'Connell) moved away to Ohio those two decades ago with her then-husband but now returns to Florida with her two sons, finally responding to a family crisis after all those years of being out of touch.
Bessie just discovered that she has leukemia. A bone marrow transplant from a family member is her best chance for surviving, so her sister and the two nephews she's never met have been called on to help. Nephew Charlie (Americo Lanni) always has his nose in a book and is a cheerful sort, so getting his hip jabbed for a test is no big deal. However, Hank (Stephen Peterson) has issues, not the least of which is his being bipolar and on loan from what his mother calls a" loony bin," having burned down their last house.
As though Bessie hasn't had enough on her plate, she has also been taking care of their Aunt Ruth (Maria Day Hyde), a dottie but likable sort, addicted to her soap operas and prone to nodding off. One of the ways she entertains herself is to tell Marvin that his nurse doesn't really exist, a purported hallucination Ruth really has fun with when he's being carried to his bath.
Lee is barely scraping by financially, so it took a bake sale to get her and the boys bussed down to Florida. Ever since her abusive husband hauled her to the Midwest, she has been an emotional and economic basket case, so we can't judge her too harshly for neglecting her father and sister.
Mentally troubled Hank, nearing 18, is the most interesting character here. Between his immaturity and wanting to play with having control, he's the only one who says he might not get tested for compatibility. Whether or not he'll decide otherwise could make for a rather formulaic follow-up, though things get more interesting than that. When he says his shrink told him that people don't do things except to get something, Bessie kindly asks him what he wants to get out of being in a mental institution. Clever.