We may never know if "life is perfected by death," as the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said. But it is certain that life cannot be fully embraced without accepting death as part of the same continuum.
Scott McPherson's darkly witty and penetrating 1990 play, "Marvin's Room," continuing through Sunday at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company's Hahn Cosmopolitan, accomplishes the feat of bringing the specter of dying alongside the living in a loving and heartbreakingly natural way.
And yet, despite the title, this off-Broadway hit is not about Marvin--whom we only see dimly on a bed, making cooing noises through a scrim. It's a tale of two sisters. Worn but loving Bessie (Rebecca Nachison) has looked death daily in the face for 20 years while caring for Marvin, her ailing father. Brassy, tough Lee (Beth McKinley) ran away from home--toward life presumably. But she ended up with a husband who abandoned her and two dysfunctional children that she can't speak to without bursting into rage.
It's not until Bessie is found to have leukemia, and Lee comes back home to be tested for a bone marrow transplant, that Lee begins to acknowledge death. That--to her surprise--turns out to be the key that allows her to more fully deal with life.
"Marvin's Room," and its theme of mortality, is an ideal note on which to reopen the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company. The 15-year-old company, which suspended productions three years ago under pressure of an $860,000 debt, has returned from the dead, with McPherson's drama leading off a three-play season.
The company has brought its debt down to $200,000, according to managing director Mark Loigman, and has 500 subscribers. The company also purchased the 250-seat Hahn on Dec. 31, which it had previously rented, and hired a new artistic director, Rosina Reynolds, who directed "Marvin's Room."
Reynolds shows sensitivity to the complexity of McPherson's interlacing of comedy and pain. Nachison's Bessie conveys the weariness as well as the quiet triumphs of a woman who has lived on her love for others. If she's cornered the market on saintliness, Nachison lets you know that this saint gets tired, annoyed, fed up and skitters right on the edge--before coming back and doing the right thing.
McKinley's sharp comic delivery captures the anger and wit of Lee, the cosmetologist who likes to keep everything on the surface. Tall, tough and complex, she grows and softens in the course of the story. She shows an immense growth from the woman sparring bitterly with her angry son, Hank (forcefully played by Forrest Blackburn), to the depth of feeling she shows him later.
The supporting cast also does fine work. Paul James Kruse injects some humanizing self-deprecation into what could be a cartoonishly insensitive doctor. Louise Merrim floats with delicious spaciness as Bessie's and Lee's winsome Aunt Ruth, an invalid whose electronic back cure invariably sets off the garage-door opener.
Michelle Riel's sets suggest various locations in Florida with sassy style--hot pink with palm trees peeking overhead. Jeanne Reith's costumes fit the characters perfectly--from Lee's tarty, tight outfits to Bessie's genteel, flowing ones.
Adding to the depth of any production of "Marvin's Room" is the fact that the playwright died of AIDS complications less than two years after writing it. Adding to the depth of this particular production is the fact that the first director chosen, Will Roberson, an instrumental force in getting the Gaslamp back on its feet, died of AIDS-related illness in December.
The cast and the theater seem permeated with the understanding of the thinness of the scrim between life and death. And because they understand that, ultimately, life and death are as much sisters as Bessie and Lee, the audience gets it too.
* "Marvin's Room," Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre, 444 4th Ave., San Diego. Tonight, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $19.50-$25. (619) 234-9583. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
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Rebecca Nachison: Bessie
Paul James Kruse: Dr. Wally
Louise Merrim: Ruth
Byron LaDue: Bob
Beth McKinley: Lee
Annie Hinton: Dr. Charlotte/Retirement Director
Forrest Blackburn: Hank
Robbie Negron: Charlie
A Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company production of a drama by Scott McPherson. Directed by Rosina Reynolds. Sets: Michelle Riel. Costumes: Jeanne Reith. Lights: Marc Haniuk. Sound: John Gilliland. Stage manager: Mark Stevens.