Provo’s Theatre Company’s “Marvin’s Room,” playing through March 20, reminds us that a good sense of humor and a strong will are needed to get through life’s challenges.
Gentle and good-hearted Bessie (Debra Shepherd) has been taking care of her bed-ridden, dying father Marvin (whom we never see) for 20 years, and her semi-senile Aunt Ruth (Ruth Allred) for about as long. She’s happy in this calling, but then life delivers a major kick in the pants: She gets leukemia. (Playwrighting 101: Cancer = instant sympathy from the audience.)
This leads to a reunion with her estranged sister Lee (Terra Allen), who has to be tested to see if she’s a match to donate bone marrow. She comes down to Florida with her two sons, the mildly sociopathic Hank (Brandon Klock), and the bookwormy Charlie (Nathan Broberg).
The result is lots of reconciliation, lots of tender moments, and a few nice laughs, too: The family — and the play — uses humor to deal with all this. The mental institution in which Hank has been staying (seems he burned the house down a while back) is referred to exclusively as the loony bin or nut house; Ruth’s electronic implant to control her back pain also occasionally causes the garage door to open; Ruth allows Marvin to think that various real people are actually hallucinations, because it’s easier than explaining who they are.
The two main reconciliations we’re supposed to notice are between Lee and Hank, and between Lee and Bessie. These do come, more or less, and they are nice. But the best scenes are between Bessie and her 18-year-old nephew Hank — whom she has never seen before. He sees her as just another authority figure at first, but he warms up to her. They have two scenes together, and both are sublimely touching.
Shepherd is initially too simple as Bessie, but she eases into the part as time goes on. Klock’s Hank is quietly rebellious and well-acted. Allen gives Lee some attitude and believable personality, and Allred plays Ruth as a ditzy, bubbly, lovable old gal.
The show has some nice moments — particularly those scenes with Shepherd and Klock — and ultimately has a gentle emotional impact on the audience. It doesn’t quite jerk any tears (although I think it’s supposed to), but you’ll remember you saw it, anyway. The pace drags at times, and the music between scenes is inexplicably unconnected to what’s going on, making it a little odd. But overall it’s a reasonably well-done, good-natured production.
We never see the old and dying Marvin, but a couple times near the end, we hear him groan from his bedroom. His groan sounded remarkably like the groans of a character I do called The Guy Who Ate Too Much. I often become this character at restaurants (and even did it in a Garrens Comedy Troupe show), and the sounds he makes as he laments having stuffed himself beyond all reasonable limits sound a great deal like the moans emitted by Marvin as he dies of whatever it is he has. Just some food for thought (get it?!).
In the show, Aunt Ruth, very concerned about Bessie's day-to-day health, asks her, "Did you make a stinky today?" We thought this was a wonderful thing to say, and for a while we enjoyed saying it whenever we got the chance. (Don't worry, it wore thin before very long.)