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Family Week

Rosemarie DeWitt and Kathleen Chalfant lead a strong cast in Jonathan Demme's staging of Beth Henley's problematic play about a dysfunctional family.

Kathleen Chalfant, Rosemarie DeWitt and Sami Gayle
in Family Week
(© Carol Rosegg)
In Beth Henley's Family Week, now getting a problematic production for MCC Theatre at the Lucille Lortel Theater, Claire (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a young-to-middle-aged woman suffering from a few problems: clinical depression as well as uncontrolled rage, eating disorders, PTSD, hypervigilance, and/or insomnia.

A year after the senseless and unexplained murder of her beloved son, she has checked herself in to a rigorous recovery facility in the Southwestern desert where she now awaits even greater trials: visits from her skeptical mother, Lena (Kathleen Chalfant), angry daughter, Kay (Sami Gayle), and self-absorbed sister, Rickey (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), who have come for a week of uncomfortable healing rituals in the desert.

If that all sounds heavy; it is. But there are both funny and moving moments in this production. Yet for the most part, it's unclear what inspired Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme to make his stage debut with this play, much less what Henley was going for with the script in the first place. Family Week is a relentless ride with little of the liveliness that the playwright is able to infuse in her other plays with dark themes, most famously Crimes of the Heart.

The playwright does have some fun with the dry vocabulary of a typical Twelve Step-type program: characters acknowledge their "own realities" and spend an afternoon exploring their "shame core." A recurring joke involves an exercise in which the characters confront each other over ways in which they have, in the past, made each other feel a range of primary negative emotions (which are helpfully listed on a dry erase board in case they've forgotten how they felt). There's humor in all this and, of course, there's serious business afoot as well. It's just too bad there's not more of the former.

Still, the performers give it their all. DeWitt -- who starred in Demme's dysfunctional family movie Rachel Getting Married -- is skillful and often amusing as Claire. Listen to DeWitt as she segues almost seamlessly from describing the horrific, recent suicide attempt of someone at the clinic to a quick appraisal of the custard at lunch. This is a wounded mother trying to reestablish her boundaries.

As Lena, the glorious Chalfant offers a vinegary mix of genuine support and tough love bordering on abuse, while Gayle makes some lovely choices as Kay, although she needs to work on bringing warmth and variety to her voice. And it's an intriguing nontraditional casting choice to have the always fantastic Bernstine play Rickey, since there's nothing in the script to indicate that Rickey is black while the rest of her onstage family members are white. It's a bold casting move, and a rare burst of originality in a less-than-original play.