THEATER REVIEW : 'Room' Deftly Mixes Horror and Comedy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Well into the second act of the late Scott McPherson's "Marvin's Room," there's a scene at Disney World in which Bessie, the play's leukemia-stricken protagonist, starts coughing up blood and faints. She's approached by one of the park's life-sized cartoon characters, who peers over her and then turns to wave at the audience with one of those maddeningly exaggerated affable sweeps.

It's a haunting moment that conveys, in purely visual terms, the incongruous mix of horror and comedy that makes a visit to "Marvin's Room" such an emotionally complex experience. And in its first Southland professional production at Santa Barbara's Ensemble Theatre, McPherson's award-winning play receives the kind of sensitive staging that does admirable justice to that complexity.

McPherson's script deftly sidesteps formulaic cliches. His believably flawed characters communicate in the halting, elliptical dialogue of real life.

Bessie (Gloria Rossi) is a middle-aged spinster whose life of caring for others has left her ill-equipped to be cared for. She's borne the sole responsibility for her bedridden father, Marvin, who's been dying for 20 years ("Doing it real slow so I don't miss anything," as she cheerily puts it). Though we only glimpse Marvin as a moaning figure behind image-distorting glass bricks, he hovers over the action like a shadow of impending mortality. After Bessie's life-threatening illness is diagnosed in the early scenes, her splintered family tries to stake out a measure of unity, responsibility and hope--and in the process reclaim some of their lost humanity--amid the vagaries of a generally indifferent world.

It may not seem a particularly amusing premise, but McPherson's ability to find comic details in the most unexpected circumstances is what gives "Marvin's Room" its unique perspective.

Details like the absent-minded doctor (Christopher Vore) explaining that the bag of cotton balls is sealed to keep them sterile--as he tears it open with his teeth.

Or Bessie's dotty Aunt Ruth (Gretchen Evans), equipped with an electronic anesthetizer wired into her brain that causes the garage door to open every time she uses it. Then there's Bessie's trampy estranged sister Lee (Nancy Nufer), whose visit with her older son Hank (Tristan Tait) in juvenile hall becomes more a conversation with the observing psychologist than with the boy.

The chance that a bone marrow transplant could save Bessie's life draws Lee reluctantly back to the family bosom, with her two deeply troubled sons in tow to be tested as potential donors.

Director Robert G. Weiss has wisely kept his cast to a simple pared-down delivery, avoiding the temptation to play up cleverness at the expense of truth. Weiss' linear, straight-through pacing leaves a few lines in need of breathing room, and misses some of the quirky turns that seem to call for sharper shifts in tone (when Hank asks Bessie for M&Ms; in the midst of a deeply serious conversation, for example). But these are minor distractions.

After last Friday's premiere, Karl Michael Maschek, who's in his fourth production of "Marvin's Room" (including the original) as Lee's introverted younger son, remarked that this was the first opening McPherson had missed.

The playwright died of AIDS-related complications last November.

* "Marvin's Room," Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. (Oct. 10, 17, 24, 31) or 7 p.m. (Nov. 7, 14) Ends Nov. 14. $14-$19. (805) 962-8606. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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