At its heart, Marvin’s Room has a lot to say, and plenty of room to say it. It’s about the fictions we escape into to avoid having to face our harshest realities. The title character is never seen, but acknowledged from time to time only as the catalyst for others’ suppression and repression. We want to understand more about the family this play centers around, but there’s only so much they can acknowledge and address before they have to get going again.
Director Anne Kauffman is sort of stuck. The play requires a lot of patience and empathy from the audience, witnessing several characters deteriorate and have their health fail and falter. All at once. It’s a lot to take in, which is why the play is injected with a lot of humorous moments to help ease the pain.
Bessie, played by Celia Weston, is the one balancing it all — the care for her elderly relatives and also her own sanity. When Bessie’s health takes a fast and radical turn for the worse, she needs help from her estranged sister, Lee (Janeane Garofalo). The most intriguing relationship in this play is that of Bessie and Hank, the teenaged and troubled nephew she meets for the first time. A different play would have thrown these two characters to the forefront earlier, but in this one it happens almost accidentally. The payoff is that much greater as a result. Of course this could be because Jack DiFalco joins Weston as the play’s acting standouts.
This play isn’t about wrapping things up and leaving with a happy ending. It’s about the small gestures that family members make in the interest of staying connected, or growing ever more connected. They might have the impulse to leave and not return, but whether it’s motivated by guilt or duty, they will ultimately find their way back. That’s a positive message, and a realistic one at that. But the issue here is that even though there’s plenty of comedic moments to break things up and also shake things up, it’s difficult to take in the intensity of the destruction that encompasses Bessie’s existence and not to pity her and the situation in which she finds herself. It’s all too tragic.