Marvin’s Room (Ad Astra)
September 1 – 24
“Oh life is bigger, it’s bigger than you,” REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’ reminds us along with the character of Hank during Scott McPherson’s 1990 comedy-drama “Marvin’s Room”. It is one of many song snippets that serve to barometer the emotions of the story in Ad Astra’s production of the bittersweet tale, in this case coming as troubled 17-year-old Hank (Jayden McGinlay) considers whether he will be undergo genetic testing to see if he is a transport match for an aunt he has only just heard of, let alone met.
We don’t see the bedridden Marvin of the play’s title or his room (just hear his agitations courtesy of Nicholas Sayers), but his presence looms large in what is essentially the story of a family learning to love what binds them when circumstances force them back together. Whereas the free-spirited Lee (a standout Elise Lamb) struggles as a single mum living in Ohio, her now-estranged, determined sister Bessie (Fiona Kennedy) has long been in Florida, caring for their dying father Marvin and eccentric, forgetful Aunt Ruth (Phillipa Bowe) who has been crippled with back pain. With Bessie facing her own difficult diagnosis, Lee arrives in town, along with her teenage sons Hank, who is on leave from a mental institution following an arson incident, and Charlie (Kieran McGinlay).
The sisters soon fall into their old dynamic, however, as they work through their tensions, there is an authenticity to the complexity of their relationship. Indeed, one of the show’s best scenes is when the sisters are up late sitting around the kitchen table talking. Kennedy and Lamb work well together to present such an authentic recreation of the resonate connection that shared history engenders, despite the passage of time. As an audience, we become invested in their story, not just because of their performances, but the intimacy of staging, which has the emotional action occurring within a metre of the front row.
The modest domestic setting of so many of these scenes is another strength in how Director Roslyn Johnson makes the work accessible to an audience easily able to recognise the interactions between siblings, or with a parent or child. However, the show is a long one and could be more economical. Early scenes in which Bessie pays visits to wacky Doctor Wally (an energetic Tom Harwood), may add to the irreverent comedy that balances the story’s essential pathos, but ultimately slow down our entry into the essentially small family story of big human considerations.
All members of the cast impress, however, the story’s telling rests upon the sisters at its centre. Most notably, Lamb’s nuanced performance gives Lee a vulnerability beneath her tough veneer, with her glances about and fidgety movement conveying a sense of insecurity that her words belie. Meanwhile, Kennedy makes us feel both with and for the saintly Bessie who has devoted a large portion of her life to being caregiver to Marvin and Ruth since her father’s first stroke two decades earlier…such is the realness to the shades of grey display of the reality of life’s trials and tribulations.
Although touching, things don’t necessarily end happily; in fact, there is no real ending at all, just like in real life, but there are some resolutions and a resonance with everyone who has experienced the dilemmas and associated emotions that come with aging and caring for family members, such as consideration of outsourcing their care (which comes courtesy of an assured Marita McVeigh as a local Retirement Home Director). While it may be full of quiet moments (and some quick scene changes) that slow things down, ultimately it is the contemplation that these bring that remains with audiences long after our time in “Marvin’s Room” is over.