With the opening of Marvin’s Room at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1990, playwright Scott McPherson emerged as one of the most talked-about new voices in the American theatre. The play went on to be produced in New York at Playwrights Horizons and then at the Minetta Lane Theater, garnering rave reviews each step of the way. The Chicago Tribune called it a “beautifully written, deeply moving new play”; The New York Times hailed McPherson as an “original” and “unexpected” voice who “you really must hear...for yourself.” Tragically, however, McPherson began battling AIDS-related health issues shortly after the writing of Marvin’s Room in the early ‘90s, and he passed away on November 7, 1992 at the age of 33. Now, 25 years after his untimely death, McPherson is remembered not only for his remarkable contributions to the American theatre, but also for the wisdom and warmth that he brought to a generation living under the spectre of AIDS.
For all the connections to the AIDS crisis that can be drawn in Marvin’s Room, the play was not actually written with the disease directly in mind, but rather was inspired by McPherson’s childhood experiences with his ailing family members. McPherson was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1959. When he was only two years old, his father died in a car accident. To ease the family’s ensuing financial burden, McPherson’s mother moved them in with their maternal grandmother, who was struggling with cancer and, as McPherson notes in the program for Hartford Stage Company’s 1990 production of Marvin’s Room, had morphine injections that came at “regular intervals” with commercial breaks for “The Ed Sullivan Show.” McPherson’s mother, now a single parent, not only had to raise her three children and care for her mother, but also had to work as a department store sales clerk part-time to keep food on the table. “[My mother] threw herself at her responsibilities with a terrifying determination,” McPherson wrote in the Hartford Stage Company program, “afraid if she gave any less she would awake to find she was running off in the other direction, leaving all of us behind to fend for ourselves.” Much of the source material for Marvin’s Room, then, derives from McPherson’s childhood experiences watching his mother immerse herself in her familial responsibilities. The play, McPherson contends, is not as much about the dreariness of living with disease as it is about “love and the power of giving yourself to someone else.”
Marvin’s Room wasn’t the first play of McPherson’s that explored the unexpected humor in tragedy. While McPherson was away studying theatre and dance at Ohio University in the early ‘80s, his oldest brother died in a motorcycle accident. McPherson’s subsequent play, Til the Fat Lady Sings, follows a family who, in the wake of the death of their own son, tries desperately to grieve in private while facing down a barrage of well-meaning but comically overbearing sympathizers. Both darkly funny and painfully poignant, Til the Fat Lady Sings premiered at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago in 1987. It was McPherson’s first full-length playwriting credit in the midst of a career of writing for local television stations and acting in various shows throughout the city.
Encouraged by the success of Til the Fat Lady Sings, McPherson began work on Marvin’s Room in the late ‘80s and submitted it as an unsolicited manuscript to the Goodman Theatre, which accepted and produced it. It wasn’t long after its opening at the Goodman that McPherson met editorial cartoonist and AIDS activist Daniel Sotomayor, who would later become his lover. The pair moved in together, soon learning that Daniel was HIV-positive. A few months later, McPherson himself was hospitalized for complications resulting from AIDS-related pneumonia -- quite literally alongside Sotomayor, who shared a hospital room with McPherson while receiving his own treatment for AIDS-related health issues. It was in the aforementioned program for the Hartford Stage Company’s production of Marvin’s Room that McPherson publicly announced the illness from which he and Sotomayor suffered, along with all too many of their friends. In the note, McPherson describes their community as a group of people who “take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick.” The play, then, which had emerged out of McPherson’s memories of his ailing relatives and the care that his mother had administered to them, became, almost unintentionally, a mirror to McPherson’s own life and the community of AIDS sufferers who would alternately assume the role of caregiver in a time of crisis. “At times,” McPherson wrote, “an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, by caring for one another. By most we are thought of as dying. But as dying becomes a way of life, the meaning of the word blurs.”
As Marvin’s Room prepared for its New York premiere, McPherson and Sotomayor fought to take a “vacation” from their illnesses, but they found it harder and harder to plan around their health. At the opening night of Marvin’s Room at Playwright Horizons in December 1991, McPherson was in noticeably bad condition, as was Sotomayor, who shivered under a blanket for the duration of the performance. McPherson nevertheless continued writing, even though he would every so often refer to himself, jokingly, as a “playwrit.” Paramount had purchased the film rights to Marvin’s Room, and McPherson himself was tasked with adapting it into a screenplay. He finished the screenplay in 1992, but, sadly, it would be his last completed work. Sotomayor passed away on February 5, 1992 from complications from AIDS, nine months before McPherson himself would succumb to the same illness.
Marvin’s Room went on to win the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play, and the film, which stars Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, and Leonardo DiCaprio, premiered in 1996. Though McPherson’s career was short-lived, his unique humor and sagacious insight made for a legacy from which audiences are still learning today.
Marvin's Room is now in performance at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2016-2017 Season, Marvin's Room