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Best Beth

Playwright Beth Henley celebrates Family Week.

Beth Henley
Beth Henley

Beth Henley made a welcome return to the New York stage last season with Impossible Marriage, a surprisingly–for Henley, at least–upbeat family saga that served as a reminder of the power of her distinctive, theatrical voice. Henley’s new play, Family Week, opened April 10 at Off-Broadway’s Century Theatre, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright acknowledges that it’s her most serious work yet. Death, depression, abuse (a favorite Henley theme), and the love-hate relationship between mothers and daughters (another frequent theme) combine to create a moving tale of loss and missed connections.

“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.”


Rose Gregorio and Carol Kanein Family Week.
Rose Gregorio and Carol Kane
in Family Week.

Henley’s speaking voice retains a touch of Mississippi in it; she was born in Jackson, and returns to the state several times a year to visit her mother, sisters, and literary friends like the late Willie Morris. But she has lived in California for as many years as she lived in the South, and her writing in the past decade has veered away from the eccentric Southerners who populated Crimes of the Heart, The Miss Firecracker Contest, and The Debutante Ball. An upcoming two-volume collection from Smith & Kraus will allow readers to sample more stylized works like Control Freaks, directed in Los Angeles in 1993 by Henley herself; and L-Play, staged at the Berkshire Theater Festival
in 1996.

“I moved out of the South and back into history with plays like The Lucky Spot and Abundance,” Henley says. “Then I flash forward toward the 21st century with futuristic plays set in Los Angeles. When I move out of the South, I’m also moving out of a more naturalistic style and experimenting with other styles. L-Play deals with six themes done in six different styles; I was dealing with the fragmentation of my life at the time. When I wrote Impossible Marriage, I was pregnant, and I really wanted to write a happy play.”

Henley became a mother after age 40; her son, Patrick, is now four. “I couldn’t have done it in my 20s or 30s,” she says, citing her obsession with writing and work. Now, however, she happily spent the day before Family Week‘s opening night playing with her son in a freak spring snowstorm. “He’d never seen snow!” she says with a delighted laugh. “We went out to the park and there were tulips in bloom with snow behind them. It was amazing.”

Though Henley repeatedly expresses her love of New York, “this magical place where people gather every night to see theater,” living on the West Coast has allowed her to spend time working on screenplays. Recent assignments (none of which have yet been produced) include adaptations of the novels A Confederacy of Dunces, The Shipping News, and A Long and Heavy Life, plus a pair of scripts for Jonathan Demme based on non-fiction books about a racially charged murder case and a band of Canadian bank robbers. Asked what she enjoys most about screenwriting, Henley replies slowly, “Well, let’s see. We wouldn’t want to say money, would we? Actually, I love to work on a great book with a great director. It’s like getting paid to go to some special Harvard class.” Still, she considers the theater home, praising the level of control a playwright retains.

Those of us who fondly remember Lizbeth Mackay, Mary Beth Hurt, and Mia Dillon in the Broadway production of Crimes of the Heart (not to mention Peter MacNicol as Dillon’s dweeby lawyer, a part he’s still playing on Ally McBeal) may be startled to hear that Second Stage is planning a 20th anniversary revival next season. “Sometimes it feels like it’s been 50 years,” Henley quips of her first big success, achieved before she was 30, “and sometimes it feels like it’s been two days. Time is the most fascinating thing to me: It’s liquid and relative and makes no sense whatsoever. I’m
just happy to be alive, and happy that someone is still interested in doing the play.” She enjoyed Garry Marshall’s sold-out production last fall at L.A.’s Falcon Theatre, and says wistfully, “I have so many vivid memories of every production I’ve seen.” The career benefits and validation of winning a Pulitzer for her second play far outweighed any subsequent career pressure, she adds.

Henley sounds satisfied with her eclectic, 20-year career. Laughing, she comments, “It’s like the last line a friend of mine wrote for a porno movie: ‘This is good, but I want more.’ I’d love to be in a Broadway theater with those chandeliers, and I’d love to work with more good people. I love New York, and I love the theater.”

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Family Week

Closed: April 16, 2000