Marvin’s Room — Scott McPherson’s excellent play about estranged sisters who reunite when selfless good sister Bessie needs a bone marrow transplant — has been celebrated as a terminal illness story that focuses on living rather than dying, on complicated relationships rather than complicated medical procedures; beating the expected decadent dreariness with hefty doses of black humor. Nonetheless, I filled my bag with tissues when I prepared to see it — it involves leukemia, for Pete’s sake (cue my anticipated hysterics). Besides, just how funny can leukemia be? According to my fellow audience members, it can be utterly hysterical — they howled in delight at nearly every line. While I, too, snickered — an argument over a potato chip between selfish bad sister Lee and her disturbed son was exhilarating — I felt unfulfilled. Not that I’d looked forward to weeping in public (again), but with humor so intelligent and dark, it seemed odd that the lines were delivered so lightly.
The goofiness was fun, but many of the play’s ironies and themes — the caretaker becoming the patient; the motivation behind (and rewards of) self-sacrifice; the inescapable pull of family — were dulled with this treatment. When carefully crafted moments of grim reality surfaced, they seemed awkward rather than sobering. The actors give fine performances — Adair Jameson is charming as dizzy Ruth; Jill Bianchini’s Lee is every inch the shrew — but despite their applauded efforts, the play’s pathos and painful climax are underwhelming amid the giggles. With a script and cast this good, it’s a crying shame.