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Owen Keehnen AIDS Scott McPherson: Life Catches Up to Art
by Owen Keehnen
2011-09-21

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Lori Cannon, Mark Schoofs and Scott McPherson at an ACT UP AIDS protest. Photo by Rex Wockner


Scott McPherson was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1959. He began acting in high school and went to Ohio University, where he majored in theater and dance. It was there that he first had a play produced, a one-act version of his slapstick farce 'Til the Fat Lady Sings. Since his death, Ohio University has named a theater space in McPherson's honor.

Moving to Chicago in 1981, McPherson wrote for local television and acted with four theater companies, performing in productions such as Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, The Shrew, and The House of Blue Leaves. A new version of his earlier play, 'Til the Fat Lady Sings, was produced in Chicago by Lifeline Theatre.

McPherson wrote Marvin's Room when he was first diagnosed as HIV-positive but was still healthy. He wrote it on the back of commission reports at his day job. Marvin's Room is a unique blend of absurd humor and powerful emotion centering on the plight of Bessie, a woman diagnosed with leukemia after having spent much of her adult life caring for her sick father, Marvin, and her dotty aunt, Ruth. It is about a caregiver suddenly finding herself in need of care. The dark comedy resonated deeply in the era of AIDS without ever mentioning the disease. It was produced in Chicago at the Goodman and Victory Gardens theaters, both of which have since established playwriting awards in McPherson's name. Marvin's Room was then performed at Hartford Stage in Connecticut before moving to New York City, where it was produced at Playwrights Horizons and eventually the Minetta Lane Theatre.

Frank Rich of The New York Times called it "one of the funniest plays of this year as well as one of the wisest and most moving." Marvin's Room received numerous accolades including the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play, the Outer Critics Circle's John Gassner Playwriting Award, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, the Dramatists Guild of America's Hull-Warriner Award, and even Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk and Obie awards to Laura Esterman for her performance in the play.

McPherson was living every writer's dream, and by this time he was also living with AIDS. Oddly, Marvin's Room had become almost a foreshadowing of his own life as McPherson began caring for his ailing lover, the activist and political cartoonist Daniel Sotomayor, while dealing with his own AIDS diagnosis and failing health. "It was like my life was catching up to the play," he said. Yet despite his illness and despite the eventual death of his partner, McPherson never became bitter. Instead, he struggled through his illness with a strength, humility and humor reflective of his work.

After the success of Marvin's Room, McPherson was contracted by Norman Lear's Act III Broadcasting for a script, the screwball farce Legal Briefs. Before his death, McPherson also finished a draft of the Marvin's Room screenplay for Robert De Niro's Tribeca Productions. The film was released in 1996 and starred Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, and De Niro.

When McPherson died from AIDS-related complications on Nov. 7, 1992, at the age of 33, the theater was robbed of an extremely talented and vital young playwright.

From the book Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim ( Agate/Surrey, 2008 ) .


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