Butterfield Stage describes the play “Marvin’s Room” as a story about the years that keep us apart and the moments that bring us together. Winner of the 1991 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the 1991 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play and the 1991 John Gassner Award for Best New American Play, Marvin’s Room tells the story of sisters Bessie and Lee.
Bessie lives in Florida where she cares for her pain-ridden aunt and ailing father, Marvin, who is confined to his bed and unable to speak. When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, her only hope is to contact her long-estranged sister, Lee, to see if their bone marrow is compatible for a transplant. Lee reluctantly makes the trip from Ohio, bringing along her two sons, one of who, Hank, has just been released from an institution after a wave of arson.
The sisters’ reunion is uneasy at best, with long buried recriminations coming to the surface even as love slowly overwhelms Lee’s veneer of selfishness and glib denial. By the end of the play, the sisters find themselves gradually transformed for the better by the bonds of family and the unconditional love that comes with that.
Beloved for its mordant humor and unflinching wisdom, Scott McPherson’s dark comedy allows us a moving view of one woman’s commitment to family and response to despair. McPherson wrote the play while watching his partner battle AIDS, and that he himself would succumb to the disease just a year after its premiere; this is the work of someone who has moved beyond the false promise of happy endings and is trying his best to take stock of life before time runs out.
Despite having opened off-Broadway almost 30 years ago, having a film version come out in 1996 and having recently played on Broadway just a few years ago in 2017, this play has almost been relegated to near obscurity. However, watching rehearsals for the upcoming production at Butterfield Stage in Gainesville, Texas does Marvin’s Room extraordinary justice and makes the case that a mostly forgotten play might just be a modern classic.
Headlining the play as Bessie, in her first Leading Role ever, is Butterfield regular Mary Jo Dollar.
This is Mary Jo’s sixth show with Butterfield Stage and she has always been a character actress, because that’s traditionally what she’s always enjoyed doing – bringing life to those little side characters, the ones you can really make shine.
When asked why she is finally taking on her first lead role, Mary Jo said “We first read this script in our Play Reading group about three years ago and I absolutely fell in love with the story. I really connected to Bessie. Later in his life, I took care of my Dad. My sister, like Lee in the play, lived too far away to help every day so we learned, as a family, firsthand the challenges you can face when you have to adjust your life to help care for someone. But just like Bessie, I feel it’s important to care for those we love. Nothing is more important than family. Family is everything to Bessie. She even builds a relationship with her very difficult and moody nephew throughout the course of the play and I can also relate to that relationship because I helped my nephew through a rough patch. There is a crucial time between childhood and adulthood when sometimes teens can feel so lost and sometimes they just need a hand.”
In watching rehearsals, you quickly discover that it’s Bessie who is really the soul of Marvin’s Room, her selflessness and efficiency subtly transforming nearly everybody, including her sister.
Of the overall experience, Mary Jo says, “It’s a rewarding experience because the subject matter is so beautiful and important but it’s also terrifying just because it’s such a large role. That being said, it’s one that I’m incredibly excited to share with the community. I think everyone will be able to get something out of this play. Anyone with an aging parent, anyone who has a sibling, anyone who has a strong bond with a niece or nephew, anyone who has children. Ultimately this play is about love. Love comes in all forms. As adults we come to realize that we have plenty of rewarding relationships in our life. Some of those relationships are with friends and some of them are with family. People might watch this play and feel sorry for Bessie since she never got into a relationship, but she found it rewarding to GIVE love and that’s something that I think is just so genuine and beautiful.”
Frank Rich of The New York Times called it “one of the funniest plays of this year as well as one of the wisest and most moving.”
In discussing the humor in the play, director Russell Schmid talks about the realistic side of family drama, “All families go through things, but the reality of the situation is that even in the worst of circumstances, funny things can happen and that’s what helps keep us sane. Being able to release tension and stress through small moments of joy and levity can ultimately bring us together in times of hardship. The author, Scott McPherson, knows that and does an excellent job of putting those moments in the play. That’s what keeps it real. That’s what makes it so relatable. It’s a direct reflection of life.”
When asked what he hopes audiences will take away from the play, Russell says, “Family is love. Not all our family is blood, but love is constant.”
Marvin’s Room features Mary Jo Dollar, Janice Hill, Ethan Biesecker, Sandy Geyer, Robert Ivy, David Owens, Renea Williams-Stephens, Sam Warren, Kalee Owens & John Moragues. Marvin’s Room is produced by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc.
Marvin’s Room performances are scheduled March 6, 7, 13 and March 14 at 7:30 p.m. and March 8 and March 15 at 2:30 p.m. at Butterfield Stage, 201 S. Denton St., Gainesville. Tickets can be purchased anytime online for this show, and any others for this season, at www.butterfieldstage.org or by calling 940-665-1284.