Chicago Theatre Review
Love and Respect
Marvin’s Room – Shattered Globe Theatre
They say these things always come in threes, don’t they? Bessie, who for the past several years has been a caretaker for Marvin, her bedridden father, and her elderly Aunt Ruth, learns at the beginning of the play that now she, too, is seriously ill. This generous, optimistic, middle-aged woman, who’s only known a life of taking care of others, is now in need of someone to not only help with Marvin and Ruth, but perhaps take care of her, as well. Actually, what Bessie needs even more is a positive genetic match for a bone marrow transplant. Fortunately, Bessie’s younger, unstable sister Lee, a single mother who’s just completed beauty school, shows up on their Florida doorstep with her two teenage sons, Hank and Charlie. They all plan to get tested to see if either of them is a donor match.
Seventeen year old Hank has been living at a juvenile home for mentally disturbed kids because he recently burned down the family’s house in Ohio. His younger brother Charlie is an amiable, nerdy teenager who hides in his books. Suddenly, Bessie’s family has expanded to six. Add to this mix a doctor who can’t remember his patients’ names or where he’s put his instruments, and his assistant Bob, Dr. Wally’s dim younger brother. This congregation of crazies certainly spells comedy, but that’s life. And there are some serious moments and important messages to take from this 25-year old play.
Written by the late, gifted actor and playwright, Scott McPherson, this play premiered in Chicago in 1990, where he was living at that time. Although it’s not actually a play about the AIDS epidemic, Scott was responding to this tragic time in our history, combining situations from his own past with his current life. McPherson, who had contracted the deadly disease, became the caretaker for his dying life partner, much as Bessie, who’s sick with leukemia, is caring for her father and aunt. McPherson’s drama, which is filled with so many bizarre characters and unexpected humor, earned a Jeff Award and went on to play the Kennedy Center and off-Broadway. It won the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle Award, and eventually became a popular film, starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.
This production not only celebrates the 25th anniversary of McPherson’s moving play, but it kicks off the 25th season of Shattered Globe Theatre. Director Sandy Shinner, the dramaturg of the original production, directs McPherson’s play with compassion, understanding and a talent for blending offbeat, oddball comedy with moments of sobering, serious events. She’s paced the show with an ease that allows audiences to relish every single moment with clarity and a certain amount of joy. Nick Mozak’s fluid scenic design allows instant changes in locale. Props and sparse furnishings are kept along the edges of the playing area for easy access. Mozak places the titular bed space permanently upstage center, with a translucent wall, through which the audience can see and hear a bedridden Marvin on his breathing apparatus. Chrisopher Kriz’s original music and sound design also enhances this production, as well.
A shining silver anniversary ensemble of top actors comprises this talented cast. Linda Reiter, a recent Jeff Award nominee for her solo performance in Victory Gardens’ “The Last Testament of Mary,” leads the way as lovable Bessie. A saint of a woman, this resilient provider and survivor is the kind of person you just want to hug. She’s funny, humble and a giving individual to everyone around her. Ms. Reiter’s relationship with each character, from her elderly Aunt Ruth to her youngest nephew Charlie, is an example, not only of great acting, but the best of humanity. Rebecca Jordan, so powerful in SGT’s “Mill Fire,” is a feisty, no-nonsense Lee. As Bessie’s younger sister, with her own agenda of personal problems and emotional challenges, Ms. Jordan arrives with her guard raised. She hasn’t seen Bessie in a long time, but she’s hoping to put years of bad feelings behind them by offering her family and herself as a bone marrow match for her sister. Over time, Ms. Jordan’s character begins to mellow, her sharp angles start to wear down and her brusque demeanor starts to soften. She gradually learns kindness and an ability to listen to those around her. Most of all, Lee learns from Bessie how to love and empathize with her two boys, particularly Hank.
Hank is played by handsome young actor, Nate Santana with the same chip on his shoulder attitude as his mother. Recently seen in Griffin Theatre’s “Balm in Gilead” and “Golden Boy,” Mr. Santana has the same swagger and cockiness that made James Dean a film idol. In this actor’s hands the audience can also see through the cracks of his crust and bluster, down to the hurt, harbored deep inside. After years of neglect and misunderstanding, by the end of McPherson’s play we see a glimmer of hope for Hank. The radiant Jeff, Drama Desk and Tony Award-winning Deanna Dunagan brings insight and humor to her portrait of Aunt Ruth. As the charming, spunky senior citizen, with an implanted medical device that accidentally opens and closes the garage door, Ms. Dunagan knows how to easily up the lovability level in this dearly lovable character. Don Tieri is quite funny as befuddled Dr. Wally, a medical professional who doesn’t exactly inspire confidence with his forgetfulness. Mr. Tieri is as genial as he is absent-minded in his portrayal. Kyle Klein brings a sweet earnestness to Charlie, Hank’s kid brother who survives through his reading and his imagination. Deanna Reed-Foster is a warm, perseverant Dr. Charlotte, and Drew Schad is likable as dorky Bob, the medical receptionist, who’s cut from the same cloth as his brother, Dr. Wally.
This is a production that Scott McPherson would’ve been proud of. Hats off to Shattered Globe for resurrecting this wonderful play that, 25 years later, is every bit as relevant and powerful today as when it was written. People still get sick and require assistance, siblings continue to quarrel but eventually find common ground to reunite once more. But, most of all, it’s the humanity, patience and empathy, despite all our technical advancements, that keep our world spinning round. Love and respect are all we require and, hopefully, those things will never change.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 1-November 14 by Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.