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July 7, 2017 by

“Marvin’s Room” Explores Sisterhood and Caregiving

0264r2_Celia Weston and Lili Taylor in MARVIN'S ROOM, Photo by Joan Marcus 2017-1Why are women expected to be caregivers—for their children, their parents, and sometimes for other relatives as well—while men are not?

That is not the question being asked by “Marvin’s Room,” a 1990 play by Scott McPherson now making its Broadway debut in a beautifully calibrated and engrossing production. Nevertheless, the question may occur to women in the audience. 

The comedic drama, directed by Anne Kauffman, explores the relationship between two sisters who became estranged some 20 years earlier, when one stayed home to care for their dying father and his ailing sister while the other departed to pursue different paths, eventually becoming a single mother of two boys and a candidate for a degree in cosmetology, which she hopes will lead to a more affluent and fulfilling life. After the caregiver discovers she herself has leukemia, she reaches out to her sister and nephews as possible bone marrow donors, and they come to visit. The story is told with a lot of wry, absurdist humor about such subjects as awkward doctor visits, painful backs and encounters with costumed actors at Disney World.

The production, from the Roundabout Theater Company, is blessed with an excellent cast as well as Kauffman’s sensitive direction, infused by her female perspective and perhaps also by a Jewish humanitarian sensibility, which at one point led her to help Jews get out of the Soviet Union. Lili Taylor plays Bessie, the caretaker sister, with a thoughtful and humorous take on the role. She’s never maudlin, even when the otherwise smartly written script occasionally veers into sentimentality or easy aphorisms.

The other sister, Lee, is a harder role in some ways, because Lee is steering a difficult path and yet, in this production, is never made to be a villain even if her actions are sometimes misguided. Her older son, Hank (a terrific Jack DiFalco), is a rebellious teenager, raging when he’s not morose, who has been consigned to a mental institution because he burned down the family home. Using “tough love” techniques that she has apparently learned from a therapist, Lee tends to trigger Hank’s provocative acts (from peevishly refusing to come inside a house to, more seriously, refusing to agree to be tested as a bone marrow match). The bookish younger son, Charlie (Luca Padovan, in a lovely, reserved performance), seems to be proof that Lee can be a very good mother, though we see her largely overlooking him. The sisters’ jolly but addled Aunt Ruth is delightfully portrayed by Celia Watson. 

Janeane Garofalo is outstanding in the role of Lee, balancing the character’s rough edges and her more sensible ones. I mistakenly thought, for a while, that Garofalo, a stand-up comedian as well as an actress, is Jewish, and that she thus fits in well with a long line of blunt, bold comic Jewish performers like Joan Rivers, Jackie Hoffman and Amy Schumer. Even not Jewish, she is part of that raucous clan, and her approach to this role is partly drawn from it. Seeing the play in this production  (it had a stellar Off-Broadway premiere in New York and is often produced regionally), I considered for the first time that Lee, rather than shirking a duty she should have at least helped with, took the path that a man might have taken without rebuke.

I thought of the phrase “a woman of valor” (ayshet chayil), from the psalm sometimes used at funerals of women who have primarily been homemakers and mothers, which I’ve always found slightly condescending, though it is not intended that way by the rabbis and by husbands who recite it to their wives each Shabbat eve. It comes from Proverbs 31, which defines this valued-above-rubies woman as someone who is good to her husband, her children, the poor and the needy—though, to be fair, it also mentions wisdom, strength and bravery, without giving a specific context for those qualities. The epithet could easily be applied to Bessie, the “good” sister, even though she never married or had children.

Men are sometimes praised these days if they “babysit” their own children or selflessly (and usually briefly) become a house-husband or otherwise “help” around the house. Those are important and worthwhile jobs, but they are not expected of men. Their eulogies don’t usually lead off with how wonderful they were as diaper-changers of their children or bedpan-cleaners of elderly or sick relatives or friends. They are more likely to be praised for their accomplishments in the wider world of commerce, which might include philanthropy if they make enough money. Lee, if she finishes her studies and gets high-paying jobs (she already has had one), would fall into that traditionally male category. But let’s make it part of the female tradition—as many of us do these days—and call her a woman of valor, too.

It’s unlikely that McPherson, the playwright, had these ideas in mind while writing his play, which, as he wrote in a 1990 note reproduced in the Playbill, is based on his own childhood experience, with a grandmother dying of cancer who was taken care of by his mother, who also had three children, kept house and worked part-time at a department store. His mother, he wrote, had studied modern dance but “threw herself at her responsibilities with a terrifying determination—afraid if she gave any less she would awaken to find she was running off in the other direction, leaving all of us behind to fend for ourselves.”  

He gives Bessie a softer view of things, however. She’s no doubt thought about abandoning her needy relatives, and she does, uneasily, explore putting her father in a nursing home. Then she has this interchange with Lee about their father and aunt:

Bessie: I’ve had such love in my life. I look back and I’ve had such love.

Lee: They love you very much.

Bessie: I don’t mean — I mean I love them. I am so lucky to have been able to love someone so much. I am so lucky to have loved so much. I am so lucky.

That is a wise insight, and Lee agrees that love has been her sister’s good fortune. The conversation borders on sentimentality, but Taylor, a fine actress, delivers it in such an understated way that it comes off as plainly stated truth.

McPherson’s realization about love was confirmed and amplified through his later experience with friends, including his lover, who had AIDS, in the era when that almost certainly meant death. He wrote that “we all take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick. At times, an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, by caring for another.”  McPherson lived in a community mostly of men, who took on roles traditionally held by women, and who learned that love and caring are rewarding for any gender. In 1992, 25 years ago, McPherson died of complications from AIDS. He was 33.   

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.