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Vortex pulls off a difficult heartstring-jerker with flair.

By Julie Birnbaum

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  Trying to put on a play that centers on terminal illness is a challenge, and when, like Marvin's Room, that play combines profound emotion and black humor, it's like walking on eggshells. Written by Scott McPherson, who died of AIDS the year after its 1991 debut, Marvin's Room is large-scale drama, especially for the small, intimate Vortex theater. Excellent casting and directing by David Jarner, a Vortex veteran, and masterful, complex performances, however, make the production a success.

A tapestry of family relationships, the play focuses on the responsibility that links family members and the pain and love that those ties bring. Sisters Bessie and Lee make up the central relationship, alternately attacking and nurturing each other. After a 20-year rivalry, they are drawn together by Bessie's discovery that she has leukemia and could be saved by a bone marrow transplant. Kathleen Murphy (Bessie) and Connie McElyea (Lee) play their contrasting roles with depth and humor: Bessie as the self-sacrificing, quiet woman who has spent her life caring for her ill father Marvin, Lee as the tough, independent one who left her father after his stroke. Ailing Marvin, in an interesting production decision, spends the entire play in bed behind a translucent scrim, acting as a kind of nucleus, never speaking but always present.

Lee's sons Hank and Charlie accompany her to Bessie's, adding another level of familial distortion. For Hank--played with rebellious, unbalanced lovability by Damian Drago--the trip is a respite from the mental institution he has lived in since burning down the family home. A subtly depicted alliance then begins to form between Hank and Bessie, as they look at the sacrifices people choose to make--or not to make--for one another.

First appearing off-Broadway in New York, Marvin's Room got rave reviews and a collection of awards. A few years later, Miramax released a movie version, which got a mixed reception despite a star-studded cast. Its weaknesses were similar to the those evident in the theater: Sometimes the feeling gives way to a ridiculous sappiness, and the audience is left with the uncomfortable feeling that something's not quite working.

Though Marvin's Room is not directly about AIDS, the theme of illness and caretaking clearly had personal significance to McPherson. "At times," he wrote in the program notes of a Hartford production, "an unbelievable harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love." The Vortex leaves the audience with that in mind, evidence of its having gracefully accomplished its work.

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