Playwright: Scott McPherson. At: Circle Theatre at Madison Street Theatre Studio, 1010 W. Madison St., Oak Park. Tickets: 708-660-9540; www.circle-theatre.org; $24-$28. Runs through: Sept. 30
AIDS is never mentioned in the late gay playwright Scott McPherson's acclaimed and award-winning 1990 comic drama Marvin's Room. Yet AIDS acts as a behind-the-scenes scourge to the play, since the disease untimely felled McPherson at the age of 33 in 1992.
At least the native of Columbus, Ohio, who found successful work as an actor and playwright in Chicago was able to see Marvin's Room go onto be a off-Broadway hit in 1991 and finish a screenplay adaptation for the acclaimed 1996 film starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Now, Marvin's Room is back in the Chicago area with an intimate studio staging at Circle Theatre in Oak Park. Though elements of director Mary C. Redmon's production aren't always the most ideal, Marvin's Room shows how nearly timeless and insightful it is in exploring issues of family loyalty, disease and death.
Marvin's Room focuses on Bessie (Amanda Hartley), who has devoted a good portion of her adult life taking care of her slowly dying father, Marvin (voiced by Paul Chakrin), and her aging aunt Ruth (Kate Kisner). When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, she's forced to contact her long-estranged and bitter sister, Lee (Elizabeth Morgan), and her troubled sons, Hank (Todd Aiello) and Charlie (Danny Mulae), with the hope that they'll be matching bone marrow donors.
If you think this all sounds like a relentless downer, fear not. McPherson layers on the laughs throughout Marvin's Room so that they outnumber the teary-eyed moments, for sure. But wringing out those potential laughs isn't always the strong suit of Circle's production, which has some issues with casting (Mulae is too old for the role of Charlie) and comic timing. (Kisner's Ruth, Liliana Mitchell's psychiatrist/retirement counselor and Eliza Shin's flustered Dr. Wally all aren't quite there in making their characters the laugh riots they could be.)
Undoubtedly, Morgan makes the biggest impression as Lee, especially when she sarcastically deals with Aiello's sarcastically defiant Hank (who starts the play in a mental institution for his destructive pyromania). Hartley as Bessie is good, but could plumb the depths of her character's fears beneath her outward and enduring show of strength and fortitude.
Even if Circle Theatre's production of Marvin's Room is far from perfect, the play itself remains a must-see. Not only does Marvin's Room survive as a wonderfully insightful blend of comedy and drama, the play is a lovely memorial to McPherson as an artist who was only beginning to bloom into greatness before AIDS cut his life short.