Jonathan Demme, famed director of films such as The Silence of the Lambs and Rachel Getting Married, makes his first, successful foray into live theater with an Off Broadway production of Beth Henley’s Family Week. You’d never guess that Demme is a newbie to the theater, though. His production is quick and powerful, dripping with both drama and comedy. Of course, that credit must be shared with Henley, the family-drama mastermind behind shows such as Crimes of the Heart.
Family Week revolves around Claire (Demme fave and Rachel Getting Married star Rosemarie DeWitt), who’s seeking treatment at a desert facility one year after the tragic and unresolved murder of her teenage son, Daniel. Then her relatives descend to participate in the therapeutic process for a week. In other words, it’s the perfect situation to draw fascinating family commotion. In Claire’s case, this means her unthinkingly callous sister, Rickey (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), withering mother, Lena (Kathleen Chalfant), and unpredictable daughter, Kay (Sami Gayle) arrive, armed with their heavy attitudes and baggage.
What transpires is good, juicy drama, some concerning long-buried troubles but mostly centering on the fallout from Daniel’s murder. At one point, Rickey addresses Claire: ”After Daniel died and you sent me a bouquet of flowers on our shared birthday signed, ‘Your Guardian Angel, Daniel,’ I felt pain and horror.” The moment is shudder-inducing. Much of the dialogue is based on how the four different characters are feeling, with frequent use of words like anger and fear and pain. Henley also has the four characters take turns as counselors during the sessions, a technique that is both unsettling and amplifying, particularly as the action builds to a climactic, dreamy moment when three counselors — all played by family members — bombard a scared Lena.
While much of the 75-minute play is heavy, Family Week is also deeply rich with comedy. Bernstine’s Rickey offers the most comedic relief with her sassy, I-don’t-care attitude and freewheeling spirit. And it’s that particular combination — moments of despair punctuated often by bursts of laughter — that makes this play so deeply resonant. Because that blend reflects the way most families really are. B+
(Tickets: http://www.mcctheater.org/ or 212-279-4200)