Review: Marvin’s Room (Ad Astra)

Fiona Kennedy as Bessie and Elise Lamb as Lee, photographed by Christopher Sharman

Ad Astra’s production of Marvin’s Room balanced domestic drama with laugh-out-loud humour as it explored aging, illness, obligation, and care in its many forms.

Directed by Roslyn Johnson, Ad Astra’s production of Scott McPherson’s award-winning 1990 play captured the stifling domesticity of a family that is falling apart and coming together, with no option except to keep moving forward.

Bessie has always been the caretaker in her family, moving to Florida to care for her sick father and her aging aunt while her younger sister, Lee, stayed in Ohio to raise her family. However, the estranged sisters are forced back together when Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia. With her two sons in tow – Hank, recently released from a psychiatric hospital after burning down the house, and Charlie, who says little and reads a lot – Lee arrives in Florida to help her sister, get tested as a potential bone marrow transplant match, and confront the family responsibilities that she has been running from for years.

Adapted into a film in 1996, with an all-star cast that included Meryl Streep as Lee and a young Leonardo Di Caprio as Hank, Marvin’s Room is a portrait of a family in crisis as Bessie must allow herself to relinquish the role of caretaker and Lee struggles to find a sense of control in her life and her parenting. There are old hurts to be excavated, and the two women must learn to trust and rely on each other again in order to manage their own issues, and the issues presented by their eccentric extended family.

Tom Harwood as Dr Wally and Fiona Kennedy as Bessie. Photographed by Christopher Sharman.

Fiona Kennedy played a sincere and steadfast Bessie, and Elise Lamb was chaotic and emphatic as Lee, although her American accent was inconsistent. Kennedy and Lamb unfolded the relationship between the two sisters beautifully, from an awkward reunion to mutual affection and respect. Jayden McGinlay played the role of Hank with an admirable intensity and maturity, and Tom Harwood’s straight-faced Dr Wally and Philippa Bowe’s excitable, dithering Aunt Ruth provided ample comic relief. Kieran McGinlay (Charlie), Marita McVeigh (Dr Charlotte & Retirement Home Director), and Nicholas Sayers (Bob) rounded out the cast.

Elise Lamb as Lee and Philippa Bowe as Aunt Ruth. Photographed by Christopher Sharman.

The small space of Ad Astra’s theatre makes it a perfect setting for these kinds of intense domestic dramas, and throughout the play there were moments of tenderness and tension that seemed to pull the air out of the room. Technical design by Donovan Wagner included a soundtrack of 90s hits, and a glimmering light in Marvin’s Room that contributed to scene transitions and dramatic moments. Layered sets, designed and constructed by Ian Johnson, were very effective in creating a range of believable locations in the intimate black box theatre space.

Marvin’s Room was warm, funny, and moving, balancing the heavy themes of the work with small, close moments of absurdity and earnest emotion.

Marvin’s Room will play at Ad Astra, Fortitude Valley, from 1 – 24 September 2022.

For ticketing and further information, visit the Ad Astra website

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