"I never know how a play is going to end when I start writing," says Henley, who follows her characters to endings that are often unhappy and never pat. "When I was writing Crimes of the Heart," she says of her most famous work, "I remember being upset because I thought that one of the characters was going to commit suicide." Laughing, Henley adds: "I was so relieved when it didn't happen."
In the case of Family Week, Henley says she wanted to look at the effects of a tragedy--specifically, a child's murder--on a family's life. The play, directed by Ulu Grosbard, is set in a Betty Ford-like treatment center in which three generations of women confront each other and their shared history. Watching her characters come to life, explains Henley, is "surprising and thrilling and terrifying. It's kind of like I'm an exorcist, saying to the actors, 'You take it now.' They give you a fresh view of what you've written and go to an even deeper level than you went. That's what makes theater addictive: It's a jolt of adrenaline, one of the great collaborative arts."
Over the years, Henley has developed close relationships with actors like Holly Hunter, who has starred in six of her plays, and Carol Kane, who plays the floozy sister in Family Week, the actress's fifth Henley play. "They really understand the rhythm of my writing, and they can do both comedy and tragedy truthfully," she says. "That's such a gift."
"Beth is an original observer," Hunter told me just before opening in Impossible Marriage at the Roundabout in the fall of 1998. "And she is not really swayed by what other people think in terms of how she navigates her own life. I don't mean that she lives with blinders on; she's one of the most well-read people I've ever met, and she certainly is worldly, but in a different way. Beth keeps her unique point of view solidly intact, and I admire that. I just think that she's a poet, and there are very few poets in the world."