Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Playwright Speaks

Here's a reprint of a 1990 interview with Marvin's Room playwright Scott McPherson.


THEATER: At the Hartford CT Stage, "Marvin's Room"
By Alvin Klein, The New York Times
© November 18, 1990

Ask Scott McPherson why people laugh during his play "Marvin's Room," which concerns illness - lingering and terminal, physical and mental - as well as such incidental details as drowning, child abuse, arson and overall desperation, and he briskly answers, "Why not?"

In all seriousness, the first scene of "Marvin's Room," which opened at Hartford Stage Company on Friday and is to run through Dec. 15, is meant to be funny, he said. "It tells people it's O.K. to laugh," Mr. McPherson said before a recent rehearsal.

Conceived as a vaudeville-style doctor's sketch, the scene involves the fumbling, absent-minded Dr. Wally and his selfless patient, Bessie, who has come in for a checkup. She has devoted herself to the care of her father who has been dying for 20 years, the victim of a stroke and of cancer. He is the mysterious Marvin who "collects diseases as a hobby," the playwright said, and who remains a shadow throughout the play - bedridden behind a wall of 1,624 glass bricks.

After the comical visit to the inept physician, Bessie learns that she has leukemia. The play's other characters, who have been described as quirky, eccentric and loony, include the paralyzed Ruth, Bessie's aunt, and Lee, her estranged, hard-hearted sister. Ruth has three collapsed vertebrae and wears an electronic anesthetizer that is implanted in her brain. When she turns the dial, her pain is alleviated - and the garage door goes up. Lee has two teen-age sons, one of whom was confined to a mental institution after he burned down the family house.

To those accustomed to standard "disease of the week" television movies, "Marvin's Room" may well sound like a "diseases for all seasons" play. But it had a well-received premiere last February at the Goodman Theater Studio in Chicago, where such major works as "Hurlyburly," by David Rabe, and "Glengarry Glen Ross," by David Mamet, were first seen.

David Petrarca, the 28-year-old resident director of the Goodman Theater, staged Mr. McPherson's play, which has been praised by Chicago theater critics as a "deeply moving drama about dying and a very funny comedy about life."

On the play's shifting styles, the director commented: "Those changes are abrupt. The play can turn on a dime, from farce to realistic, brutal honesty, and one can undercut the other, but Scott always grounds it. It takes a while to commit to both - the bizarre and the poignant - and to find just the tone. Once it gets in its groove, it goes along on its own volition and doesn't fall off the track.

"It has to be recognizable. Everyone will find a family member on that stage and relate to the need to care for an aging parent or the fear of illness and the anxiety produced by that."

The 31-year-old Mr. McPherson, a former actor who has written one previous play, " 'Til the Fat Lady Sings," and is currently working on the screenplay for "Marvin's Room," which has been sold to Paramount Pictures, recalled the play's genesis:

"I was in a nice, warm Christmas play in Chicago three or four years ago, and I remembered how my Christmases were never like that when I was a kid. My family would go to St. Petersburg, Fla., to visit old, sick relatives I have fragmented memories of. I thought of Christmastime - the forced mood of the season and the reality of the situation. I don't think that's really the way it happened, but it sounds good."

"I thought of getting that into a play, and at the same time, I was working on a one-act play about an AIDS testing clinic, and somehow the two got fused. Although AIDS does not figure into 'Marvin's Room,' it covers the same emotional terrain. But I found I could not maintain a singular tone. I didn't sit down and consciously aim to make it funny, but it is all pretty absurd, and you have to deal with that. You can't ignore it.

"So I let the play go wherever it wanted to go. A world where both joy and sorrow exist was created, instead of two separate worlds. They both have to be played full out. The play isn't about disease, but about choosing to care for other people, or not. And how love creates transcendence. But that wasn't preplanned. I discovered it in the writing. And it is mainly funny."

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