ROUNDABOUT BLOG

2016-2017 Season

Marvin’s Room: About Playwright Scott McPherson

Posted on: June 19th, 2017 by Jason Jacobs

 

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.”

Celia Weston and Lili Taylor in Roundabout's 2017 production of MARVIN'S ROOM.

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.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Marvin's Room


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Family Drama: How art imitates life

Posted on: June 12th, 2017 by Jason Jacobs

 

The events and people Napoli, Brooklyn are loosely inspired by family history playwright Meghan Kennedy learned from her mother. Like Francesca in the play, Kennedy’s mother was the youngest daughter of Italian immigrants in Brooklyn. In drawing upon her ancestry for inspiration, Kennedy stands on the shoulders of three giants of the American theatre: Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, all of whom mined their own backgrounds to create their most memorable plays.

The Tyrones of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, seen last season at Roundabout, were based closely on O’Neill’s parents, James and Ella, and older brother, James Jr.. The Wingfields of Williams’s most autobiographical play, The Glass Menagerie, were inspired by Williams’s mother Edwina and sister Laura, while his father Cornelius looms heavily as the absent father. Both O’Neill and Williams inserted dramatized versions of themselves into their plays, through the characters of Edmund and Tom (which was also Williams’s real name).

Miller’s iconic Willy Loman of Death of Salesman was inspired by the playwright’s uncle Manny Newman, a salesman who suffered anxiety and despair and committed suicide. Miller’s representative in the play is not one the Loman sons, but nephew Bernard, a nerdy teenager who surpasses Willy’s sons in his achievements. Miller’s 1968 play The Price (revived this season by Roundabout) has even deeper roots in Miller’s past. Like Miller’s brother Kermit, Victor Franz drops out of college to support his parents, who are hurt by the Depression. Meanwhile, older brother Walter resembles Arthur, who left the family to put himself through college and went on to achieve greater success, along with great respect from the parents he left behind.

Mark Ruffalo and Tony Shalhoub in Arthur Miller's THE PRICE. Photo by Joan Marcus

Dramatizing one’s past can allow a writer to work through difficult memories. The fallout of O’Neill’s tortured family relationships, along with his mother’s drug addiction, weighed heavily on his life. He described his own suffering in a letter to a psychoanalyst, 15 years before he wrote Long Day’s Journey. He dedicated the play to his wife Carlotta, thanking her for “the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play.”

Gore Vidal, a fellow writer and loyal friend, said that Williams “could not possess his own life until he had written about it.” His mother and sister continued to haunt his work. One of his darkest plays, Suddenly Last Summer, emerged from the guilt Williams felt when his mother allowed Rose to be lobotomized—a futile attempt to cure her mental illness. But unlike Tom Wingfield, who abandons his family at the end of the play, Williams continued to take care of his mother and sister.

Miller denied that his work was autobiographical. Still, he often dealt with the lasting impact of the Great Depression on the individual American psyche, an effect he experienced personally. Miller was the son of a well-to-do family who lost their fortunes in the stock market crash and lived in reduced circumstances during the Depression. In The Price, he drew upon personal memories of his family’s financial struggles. Although he asserted that Victor and Walter do not represent his brother and himself, Miller acknowledged that “the magnetic underlying situation (of their relationship) was deep in my bones.” Critic Martin Gottfried proposes that The Price could be read as “Miller’s attempt to justify his life choices.” In a review of Roundabout’s 2017 production, Jesse Green proposes that aspects of Miller can be found both in Victor’s disgust of materialism and in Walter’s “silk-stocking (or camel-hair) problems.”

While tapping into a situation deep in his bones, Miller also combined characters and invented situations. Plays and autobiographies are different literary genres that fulfill different purposes, and both Miller and Williams wrote actual autobiographies (Timebends and Memoirs, respectively.) Playwrights must enhance conflict, tension, and revelation in order to keep audiences enthralled.

In dramatizing real events, O’Neill played freely with chronology—compressing incidents that occurred over months and years into the one long day in which his play is set. Williams made a significant change by removing the Wingfield father from the play. (His own father Cornelius lived with the family while they were in St. Louis.) The absent father raised the stakes on Laura’s dependency and Amanda’s desperation to provide for her children’s future. Literary critic Gilbert Debusscher proposes the term “autofictional” to look at Menagerie as “the result of a conflation of real life and fantasy, the poetic (re)arrangement of fact within fiction, the imaginative fictionalization of autobiography.”

Typically, autobiography centers around the author, with other people moving in and out of the narrative in relation to the central subject. The great family dramas, on the contrary, represent a group of people, all of whom have stakes in the action. Kennedy’s portrait of the Muscolino family is proof positive that no matter how a playwright to chooses to work their family’s past, the ability to find compassion for one’s relatives is essential to creating characters we care about.

Lilli Kay, Elise Kibler and Jordyn DiNatale in rehearsal for NAPOLI, BROOKLYN. Photo by Jenny Anderson.


THREE SISTERS AS ARCHETYPE

The three sisters at the center of Napoli, Brooklyn—Tina, Vita, and Francesca— exhibit great love and loyalty, and they protect each other in face of the violence, yet each sister pursues a unique paths towards fulfillment. Kennedy’s characters recall an archetype of “three sisters” that runs deep throughout mythology, folklore, and dramatic literature.

GREEK MYTHOLOGY
The Horai goddesses, Eunomia, Eiriene, and Dike are sisters who preside over the seasons, nature, and the movement of time; they represent the conditions required for prosperous farming. Their sisters, the Moraie, are also known as the Three Fates and represent the force of destiny over human life. At a man’s birth, they appear spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of his life. Another triad of sister goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, compete in a beauty contest for a golden apple that starts the Trojan War.

SHAKESPEARE: KING LEAR
Lear’s contest to his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, to declare their love for him draws on a widely known folktale type, the “love like salt” story. Here, a misunderstood daughter is cast out when she cannot adequately articulate her love. Freud proposed that the youngest sister often represents hidden virtues that are not easily seen, while the older sisters represent the deceptions of beauty and flattery. The tragedy shows the great costs of such misunderstanding.

ANTON CHEKHOV: THE THREE SISTERS
Chekhov told Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dachenko, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre: “I have a subject: three sisters. But I am not going to start working on the play until I finish the tales that are on my conscience.” His creations, Olga, Masha, and Irina Prozoroff, are the opposite of the Fates, exercising no control over anyone’s destiny. Each sister represents a different attitude towards time. The eldest, Olga, speaks largely of the past; youngest Irina fixates on the future; middle sister Masha acts in the present moment with little regard for the consequences.

WENDY WASSERSTEIN: THE SISTERS ROSENWEIG
Wasserstein’s 1992 comedy paid homage to Chekhov in its portrayal of three middle-aged, Jewish sisters, Sara, Pfeni, and Goregous. Wasserstein employed the triad of sisters to explore three different approaches to one’s Jewish identity, and unlike her earlier work, here she presented the possibility of a successful middle-aged woman who makes her own choices but does not end up alone.


Napoli, Brooklyn begins performances at the Laura Pels Theatre on June 8. For tickets and information, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Napoli Brooklyn, Upstage


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This production marks the Broadway debut for Marvin’s Room, as well as for its director, Anne Kauffman, and its playwright, Scott McPherson. I’m particularly happy to be able to bring the play’s author to a larger stage because, sadly, Scott passed away at 33 in 1992, only a couple of years after making his mark on the theatre scene, and long before his work should have come to an end. Scott came of age in the time of AIDS, which took both him and his partner in close succession. And while Marvin’s Room is not about that disease, its attitude toward love in the face of suffering is indicative of the way that Scott himself handled the many curveballs that life threw his way.

When I tell you that Scott lost both his father and brother at a young age, and that the play was partially inspired by time he spent as a child in depressing circumstances with elderly relatives, you may understandably assume that Marvin’s Room is going to be, for lack of a better term, a huge bummer. And yet, I can say without hesitation that this play is utterly hilarious. In fact, it’s that unlikely humor that made me want to share it with you today.

Walking the tightrope that is tragicomedy is no easy feat, but Marvin’s Room pulls off that balancing act with aplomb. Even when dealing with life and death circumstances, this play manages to point out the absurdities that come with simply trying to survive. As we follow the character of Bessie through cancer treatment, her interactions with the medical establishment grow increasingly ridiculous. At the same time, her sister Lee’s attempts at tough-love parenting goes outlandishly off-course, all while Aunt Ruth’s pain treatment has the awkward side effect of occasionally opening the garage door. Even with bad news piling up, these characters can’t help but laugh, and the same is true for us as an audience.

For me, this play beautifully demonstrates that life is rarely one thing at a time. While the theatrical world is filled with neatly defined dramas and comedies, Marvin’s Room reminds us that the lines are more often blurred than not, and that it’s in those blurry places that things really get interesting and where people can truly surprise us.

I’m so pleased to be sharing Marvin’s Room with you, and I hope that you’ll share your response to this singular play with me. Please email me at artisticoffice@roundabouttheatre.org -- I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback. I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!

Sincerely,

Todd Haimes
Artistic Director/CEO


Marvin's Room begins performances June 8 at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Marvin's Room


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