Disease, mortality, mental illness and estranged families may seem odd material to mine for laughs.
In playwright Scott McPherson's award-winning drama Marvin's Room, however, moments of light in dark circumstances teach lessons in how to cope and communicate in times of trouble.
The play, which opens today at the Aiken Community Playhouse, deals with two sisters - one diagnosed with cancer and the other struggling with two wayward sons. After 20 years, the sisters are brought together over the bed of their chronically ill father, Marvin.
Doris Hammond, who plays the sisters' dotty Aunt Ruth, said that she wants people to enjoy the play because of the humor it brings to its tragic circumstances.
"If you don't bring a sense of humor to everything in life you are going to have some problems," she said. "I was in private practice as a psychologist and found that if you can find humor in things as they are in the long run you are better off. This play shows how people can do that."
For director Jennifer Cudworth, the play is a tribute to Kenneth Shea, who designed the set before succumbing to brain cancer six weeks ago.
"When the play-selection committee approved this play, I went and talked to him about it and what cancer does to a family and the personal traumas it brings," she said. "He gave me so much insight, and I knew that was what I wanted to bring to this play. I think he would be very proud of this."
Ms. Cudworth said the play's success will depend on the ability of its largely inexperienced cast to summon truthful performances.
"Because they have little acting experience, the performances have been very honest and from the heart," she said. "That's something you don't always get with more experienced actors. It has been beautiful to watch."
Karla Heitkamp, who plays the leukemia-stricken Bessie, said the appeal of the play lies in its message.
"This is simply about a family struggling through terrible times and finding joyful moments," she said. "I think that's the point - finding those little blessings."
What: Marvin's Room
When: 8 tonight and Saturday night and Jan. 26-27 and 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Aiken Community Playhouse, Price Avenue and Two Notch Road
Admission: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $6 for teens and $4 for children
Phone: (803) 648-1438
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.