"Marvin’s Room" walks a thin line between comedy and drama at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre


Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Marvin's Room

Bryan Shane (Dr. Wally) and Laura Chodoroff (Bessie) rehearse for Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's staging of Marvin's Room. Photo by Tom Steppe.

When the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre had to find a substitute for a previously announced play, Cassie Mann stepped in as director and suggested staging Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, a play that walks that thin line between comedy and drama.

Two sisters have taken different paths in life. Bessie, now in her early 40s, left Ohio for Florida to be a caregiver for the last 20 years for her chronically ill father and an aunt confined to a wheelchair. She accepts her burden lightly but knows she’s missed a lot. Her sister Lee stayed in Ohio 20 years ago and never looked back. She is now the single mother of two teenage sons.

Bessie receives bad news from her doctor. She has leukemia and needs a bone marrow donor. Lee has to come to Florida to help her sister.

Sound heavy?

Cassie Mann calls it “one of the funniest plays about a serious subject I’ve encountered.”

Mann had been in a production of the play 20 years ago and didn’t have to take a deep dive to get the production started.

“I love the show, I just love it,” she said. “I just think the playwright has a real sense of humor. It’s a very funny play. It’s kind of funny, because I’ll tell somebody that it’s a comedy and they ask me what it’s about and I say, ‘Well it’s about this woman who has been caring for her aging father and aunt and never married and now she has leukemia and so she has to call on her estranged sister to come to Florida.’ What are you going to do, you have to laugh about it.”

Lee’s life has, also, not been easy. Her older son has been in a mental institution after burning down a house. Life is complicated.

“These are serious subjects, but we still have to enjoy ourselves,” Mann said. “I’m not really sure what prompted him to write this, but I think a lot of it has to do with caregiving and what that means to people, not just for the people you’re giving care to but the people who are giving the care. It’s a theme that runs through the play, especially with Bessie. She’s put her life on hold to take care of these people. What we find out is what that means to her in the course of the play. Along the way, there are fun characters. There is a line that sort of sums it up when Lee says, ‘Oh Bessie, we don’t call it a mental institution, we call it the looney bit to have a sense of humor about it. We’ve got to have a sense of humor about it.'”

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Marvin's Room

Laura Chodoroff (Bessie) and Kara Williams (Lee) rehearse for Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's staging of Marvin's Room. Photo by Tom Steppe.

Laura Chodoroff plays Bessie. Chodoroff has performed in many musicals including Spring AwakeningThe Rocky Horror Show, and Seussical but this will be her first nonmusical in a while and her first performance with the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.

Chodoroff said she thinks Bessie has taken on the role of caregiver for her father because her father cared for her mother.

“She feels this need to be a caregiver for him. But she has leukemia and she feels that’s all she’s done,” Chodoroff said. “She gets to engage with her long lost and estranged sister and her family and I think it shows a touching story of a life stopping and then coming together as a family after all those years and having the melancholy feeling of we’re coming together now in the time being.”

Chordoroff said parts of her personality resonate in Bessie.

“I’m kind of soft-spoken,” she said. “She’s a people pleaser in some ways in her obligation as a caregiver, but in her more raw moments, when she really opens up to Lee about her fears of dying, it’s tricky. I’ve not been diagnosed with a threatening disease like that, so it really taps into the fear of not waking up tomorrow. It’s very intense, but it’s been a joy to play. She has a giant range of emotions.”

Kara Williams plays Lee. She was a theater major, performed several plays, and spent time in Los Angeles before returning to Michigan.

“Lee is pretty much the opposite of Bessie in a lot of ways,” Williams said. “She has a tendency to run away from things a lot in her life and she made a decision when their father had his first stroke that she was going to be gone and wasn’t going to be stuck. She insinuates a lot of bouncing around between jobs. She’s finally getting a degree in cosmetology, so she’s starting to feel she’s getting her life together and I think this piece of being pulled back home with the family that she left is interesting. Her family is on her mind.”

Lee’s troubled son Hank has been struggling. His father left when he and his brother were very young. Mann said Hank and his mother have anger issues. 

“What’s interesting is that both of these characters have a lot of anger beneath the surface and so they’re similar but because of that they clash,” Mann said,

Bessie becomes a second, more maternal mother for Hank and his brother.

“He hasn’t had a maternal instinct mother around,” said Williams.

Bessie fills that gap.

“For Bessie who never had a chance to have a baby, never had a husband, has a chance to get close to her nephews, especially Hank,” Chodoroff said.

Scott McPherson would become a caregiver himself for his partner during the AIDS epidemic and later succumb to AIDS himself at just 33 years old, shortly after writing the script for the screen version of the play. The play was not in response to AIDS but did suggest a positive attitude and sense of humor in the face of life-changing challenges.

“He makes the main characters very real, very believable,” Mann said. “The other characters are teetering on being just characters. They are almost absurd but not quite. He puts the balance in the script. What is so masterful about this play is he gets you when you’re least expecting it. Things happen and you’re laughing.”

Marvin’s Room will be performed at the Civic’s small Studio Theater. The play has six different settings. They include Bessie’s house, a doctor’s office, a retirement home, a mental institution waiting room, and Disney World (well, a small section of Disney World). It’s a contrast to the Arthur Miller Theatre where the Civic often presents its productions, but it has its appeal for the cast and audience.

“The biggest difference is how close we can get to the audience. They feel like they are more part of it [at the Studio], it’s just a few feet away,” Mann said. “Once we set up, it might amaze the cast just how close the audience will be. I really like small studio spaces like this, especially for small family stories. It’s like you’re in the living room with them, really nice. It serves the space well.”

In addition to Chodoroff and Williams, the cast will include Denyse Clayton as Aunt Ruth, Chandler Gimson as Hank, Andrew Schairbaum as Charlie, and also Cori Carr, Nilgun Bassaran, Bryan Shane, and Larry Rusinksky.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

Scott McPherson’s "Marvin’s Room" will be presented at 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, May 10-11 and 17-18, and at 2 pm on Sunday, May 12 and 19 at the A2CT Studio Theater, 322 West Ann Street, Ann Arbor. For tickets or information, call 734-971-2228 or visit a2ct.org.