The right balance between heartbreak and humor

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By Doug Deuchler

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I'd seen this show twice before. About 20 years ago, Marvin's Room played in the same theater building, produced by another company. In my memory, that production seemed like a soap opera, stuffed with diseases, physical and emotional, but was not particularly funny.

I later saw the movie version, studded with stars — Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Leonardo Di Caprio, Robert DeNiro, Gwen Verdon and Hume Cronyn. But the score was so intrusive and manipulative that the film played like some disease-of-the-week, made-for-TV weepfest.

The current Circle Theatre revival is an unexpected treat, a vivid snapshot of three generations of a flawed family. Director Mary C. Redmon effectively captures the pulse and heart of this multi-layered drama that highlights the healing power of love.

Redmon achieves a delicate balance between humor and heartbreak. Circle's smaller storefront performance space (not the main stage) highlights the play's intimacy.

When you hear about this drama, which covers such heavy topics, it sounds like a 10-hanky tearjerker. But there are many moments of offbeat comedy in what is potentially very gloomy material.

Though this play is not about AIDS, it reflects playwright Scott McPherson's own early 1990s experience of caring for his AIDS-stricken lover, activist and cartoonist Daniel Sotomayor, when McPherson himself was suddenly confronted with his own impending death. He died within two years of complications related to AIDS at age 33. Marvin's Room was first produced at the Goodman Theatre in 1990, then went quickly went from Chicago to both Broadway and Hollywood.

The play focuses on estranged sisters with conflicting personalities who for two decades have led separate lives in separate states. Amanda Hartley and Elizabeth Morgan dominate the action as the siblings, Bessie and Lee, who have not even exchanged Christmas cards in years.

This is what is known as an actor's play. And oh, what acting!

Bessie, the selfless, sacrificing heroine played by Hartley, put her life on hold for 20 years to care for her bed-ridden father, Marvin, and his dotty, crippled sister Ruth. She does this not because she's a saint but because loving and giving come naturally to her.

Bessie doesn't seem to feel sorry for herself or mourn the absence of marriage and independence. Her commitment to loving others has made her life rich. But when she's diagnosed with leukemia, only a bone-marrow transplant from a close relative can save her. Possibly her estranged sister Lee or one of Lee's sons might be a viable match.

Family black sheep Lee (Morgan) shows up after a lapse of 17 years. A self-absorbed hairdresser and single mom, she's a bundle of frustration and anger. Lee is gutsy and hard-boiled and we're fascinated by her. Yet the harder she tries to assert control over Hank, her surly and defiant older son, the more he acts out in defiance. The family's reunion is an uneasy one.

Hank, a troubled 17-year-old, recently institutionalized for burning down his family's home as well as much of their neighborhood, is played by Todd Aiello. The stand-offish teen lashes out with anti-social behavior in an effort to get attention. At first he sees his Aunt Bessie as just another hostile authority figure. But though he initially distrusts her, he begins to warm up to her sweetness and love. Hank may also be Bessie's last hope for a compatible donor.

Aiello and Hartley give nuanced performances in their scenes together.

The 7-person ensemble cast is first-rate.

Daffy Aunt Ruth is played by Kate Kisner. She's child-like, big-hearted and lovable. Her electronic implant to control her excruciating back pain also causes the garage door to open. Danny Mulae is the docile younger son, who avoids family stress by burying his nose in a book. Bessie's inept, absent-minded doctor is Eliza Shin. Liliana Mitchell does well playing double roles: a restrained but disapproving shrink and a condescending nursing home administrator.

We never see Marvin, yet the play is named for him. We hear the elderly, bedridden near-vegetable jabbering incoherently in his room offstage.

Paul Chakris provides Marvin's voice and also plays a comic doctor's assistant.

The scenic, lighting, and graphic design is by Bob Knuth. The set accommodates multiple locations. Kevin Bellie designed the sound. Ryan Keller is the stage manager.

Marvin's Room is a solid, well-acted production that mixes humor and melancholy, illustrating the fragile ties that bind some families. It also shows how the love we give to others may be the only thing that makes life worth living.

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