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Form and dysfunction

At the heart of Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room is an old-fashioned point: That in self-sacrifice the human spirit can become pure.

It is not a path that a person would seek out necessarily, but it is a meaningful message in an age when AIDS has brought illness and death to those who are much too young.

Marvin's Room makes a heroine in the funhouse mirror out of Bessie (Rosemary Orlando) because of the love she shows toward her invalid father and aging aunt, her alcoholic sister and two nephews.

Although the value of self sacrifice has not been taken up much by modern authors, it is a way of understanding life that obviously brought McPherson comfort and meaning.

Before the playwright died from AIDS last year, he had nursed his lover and life partner through the illness to his death. McPherson wrote Marvin's Room during that period, and the play reflects his grappling with the awful brutality of life while it laughs at just how ridiculously awful life can be. The AIDS epidemic was a starting point for McPherson, but his scope is broad.

Bessie's life isn't easy.

But things can get worse.

Marvin's Room opens with Bessie in the doctor's office complaining about her tiredness to a doctor who calls her by the wrong name and wants to draw blood from her with a needle the size of a Polish sausage.

Bessie's father Marvin (David Bennett) can only make agonized and inarticulate screeching sounds. Her aunt Ruth (Carol Belt) doesn't understand that when the doctor turns Bessie's arms to hamburger because he can't find her veins it is not a medical diagnosis.

"That sounds serious," Ruth says.

On the second visit to Dr. Wally (Keven Renken), Bessie learns she may have a terminal illness.

Then there is Bessie's sister Lee (Kimberli Bronson), a pathologically self-absorbed cosmetologist.

"Oh, no!," the woman seated next to me exclaimed when Lee reached into a kitchen cabinet and pulled out a bottle of vodka to give punch to her late-night glass of orange juice.

I understood. Could we stand one more dysfunction in this supremely dysfunctional family?

Lee's son Hank (John Brogan) is a disturbed young man who found burning down his house an appropriate expression of the anger he feels for Mom.

"If the fire hadn't spread up the street it wouldn't be such a big deal. Or if melting plastic didn't give off noxious fumes," Hank tells Bessie when she asks why he is still at a mental institution as his 18th birthday approaches.

The cast is strong and each actor portrays the sharply drawn characters with subtlety. The play moves quickly and the timing of lines lends irony to the dreadful experiences.

Patrick Thomsen's set is simple and charming with a warm, whimsical use of color. Hinged panels move back to reveal the living room of Bessie's home and then close, becoming a backdrop for other scenes. For the waiting room at the mental institution, the shadow of large cathedral windows is cast onto the panels.

The production of Marvin's Room is dedicated to the memory of poet Ilse Juergensen, who died this month of cancer and who with her husband, Hans, was a founding patron of the Warehouse Theater.


Marvin's Room

Scott McPherson's play continues through Oct. 30 at the Warehouse Theater. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are "pay what you can" Thursday, $12.50 Friday and Saturday and $10.50 Sunday. Call 223-3076.