Marvin's Room is as funny as a play about terminal illness can be.

Grim, Hopeless, and Wildly Funny 

Marvin's Room is as funny as a play about terminal illness can be.

In the introduction to the text of Scott McPherson's play, Marvin's Room, AIDS activist Larry Kramer describes the conundrum at its core. "Marvin's Room is not a play about AIDS. And (it's) not a gay play," Kramer says. "Yet Marvin's Room is a magnificent gay play about AIDS."

Kramer is certainly referring to the realities of the writer's life that so exquisitely shadow the play. When McPherson wrote it in the late '80s, he and his lover were at least HIV-positive if not harboring full-blown AIDS. Both men are now deceased, but McPherson's play, examining the absurdity of life at the brink of death, is a testament to his extinguished talent.

Northland Actors Ensemble is a community theater group that dares to bring tough material to the city and to the community theater pool, where playing it safe is often the rule. Its production of Marvin's Room fights an unforgiving space -- the cavernous, bleached-wood Arena Theater of Winnetonka High School -- yet manages to pull off a show that is sublimely written and quite moving. And though the play is about terminal illness, last wishes, and all things grim and hopeless, it's wildly funny.

Bessie (Kathy Kane) is a Florida spinster who has spent the past two decades caring for her dying father (Wes King) and sickly Aunt Ruth (Deborah Hodge). In an opening scene in the office of a fumbling Dr. Wally (Larry Goodman), Bessie is the one battling something; she insists it's a vitamin deficiency, but the doctor wants to test her for leukemia. The test results for the latter are positive and, not 15 minutes later, she's wearing an unsightly wig to mask the havoc chemotherapy has wreaked. The caretaker's table has turned.

The hope of a bone marrow transplant prompts a visit by Bessie's estranged sister, Lee (Ellen DeShon) and the two nephews Bessie's never seen: Hank (Michelangelo Milano Jr.), a rebellious teen who's in a psychiatric hospital, and Charlie (Matt Griggs), a nerdy bookworm. The unfinished business that ends the first act is whether Hank will have his marrow tested to determine its compatibility with Bessie's. It's a dilemma that wouldn't be out of place in a turgid soap opera, but McPherson never milks it beyond its means; it's genuinely suspenseful.

In the second act, the extended family's sharp edges (the family ties here could be made of barbed wire) have been smoothed out. Hank can't help but be smitten by Bessie's good-heartedness; she's like the therapy he wasn't getting at home. And she and Lee declare a truce of sorts that exposes both women's value to each other. Their delicate bond is epitomized by a scene in which Lee offers to style Bessie's wig; it's the only way Lee knows to be nurturing.

The height of Marvin's Room's black comedy comes at Disney World. Several magnificently written brief encounters fall one after another into our laps. One line in which Lee recalls a moment from Hank's childhood explains everything about Lee's failure as a mother and Hank's struggle to rise above it: "I'd yell at you and yell at you and beg you to please stop hurting yourself, because he was my husband and I love him and what was I supposed to do?"

The show is directed by Doug Ford, who has caressed fine performances from most of his cast. One gross miscalculation is in the small role of a retirement home director. A good scene is sabotaged by the hideous wardrobe and affected brattiness chosen by cast member Alana Wallace. She's dressed in a vinyl vest that's so cheap that a crack whore looks classy by comparison, and she plays what is supposed to be a medical professional like a gum-snapping bitch straight out of Melrose Place.

Thankfully, she's on and off pretty quickly, and her peers save the rest of the play. The role of Bessie could become annoyingly maudlin in less able hands than those of Kathy Kane. She works hard at showcasing Bessie's sweetness while still giving us a glimpse of that occasional sour side; she's a true steel magnolia. Milano and Griggs give Hank and Charlie full-bodied personalities, and DeShon excels at providing all of Lee's multiple flaws. Goodman is a hilarious Dr. Wally, and, in a startlingly odd cameo, Sam Gershman steals his scenes as Wally's brain-dead brother, Bob.

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