Family Week

From Family Week
From Family Week

Beth Henley’s poetic and sporadically powerful new memory play Family Week receives the virtuoso performance it demands from Angelina Phillips, who plays Claire, a patient at the Pastures Recovery Center somewhere in the American desert.

Phillips is absolutely, undeniably brilliant as a mental patient trying to cope with the murder of her son, her family’s idiosyncrasies and antipathy, and her own bleak but not utterly hopeless future.

“I don’t want to have a spoiled life because my son was shot to death,” says Claire, seemingly numb with a mixture of grief and slivers of hope and reason, early in the play. “I was a good mother. Overqualified. A master’s degree in elementary education. I knew to teach phonics…Mothers are often responsible for their child’s death…I would never…I was so careful…overprotective.”

And if Family Week, which opened Off-Broadway at the Century Center for the Performing Arts on April 10 (and will close Sunday, April 16 after being savaged by the New York critics), had been Henley’s first play, or even one of her early works, one might hail the playwright as the brilliant new heir to the thrones of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill.

But coming nearly 20 years after Crimes of the Heart, her 1981 Broadway debut, one leaves the ornate

From Family Week
From Family Week

jewel box interior of the Century longing for Henley to finish and give more structure to the writing she so richly began in Family Week. Indeed, while Family Week is sprinkled with some of the poetic strengths and black humor that first propelled her to importance, the play is almost totally devoid of dramatic punch.

For example, there’s little if any hint as to why Claire’s son was murdered, execution-style, with a bullet to the head. Yet Claire relates she can physically taste the metal from the shot and hopes to find “something to make this metallic taste disappear.”

Still, a lot of Henley’s spontaneity, the unique color and emotional range of her characters, and her always-keen sense of humor which first surfaced in Crimes of the Heart, can be found alive and well in Family Week, suggesting the perhaps half a loaf of Henley bread is better than none.


From Family Week
From Family Week

The centerpiece of the action is the week–“Family Week”–that Claire’s mother, sister, and daughter spend with Claire at the Pastures Recovery Center, spread out over individual scenes that make up each day in the 90-minute play. As the scenes progress, a variety of fragments surface about Claire’s dysfunctional childhood: Claire’s mother, Lena (Rose Gregorio), used to hit her as a child. Then, at one point near the middle of the intermissionless four-person play, Claire laments, “I regret now that I wouldn’t let him get a car.” She worried that if she had let him get his own car, “He could get into trouble. My main concern was keeping the children safe.” (Claire’s daughter has come to visit her mother in the institution.)

The play’s not entirely without hope, however. Claire and her mother, sister, and daughter have moments of hope. But until the very end of the play, when the characters begin to appreciate some of the good things they mean to do for each other in the present, most of Claire’s faint hopes are focused on restoring the lost past.

Overall, the legendary Broadway director Ulu Grosbard, who directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Subject Was Roses, and Henley’s play The Wake of Jamey Foster (a Broadway flop in the early ’80s), did a nice job helping the actors find the emotional truth of behind their characters’ dialogue. But the loose, unstructured nature of the play ties his hands and some of the pauses between speeches seem self-indulgent and overlong, even for something about self-examination. It’s almost as if, in the absence of real dramatic tension, Grosbard is attempting to allow the audience to fill in the voids and long pauses with their own imagination. He may, in fact, be on to something, but in the end it makes for an unsatisfying experience.

Gregorio, a veteran Broadway actress who is excellent in almost everything she does, is also miscast as Lena, Claire’s mother. For one thing, Gregorio, who appeared in M Butterfly and The Shadow Box, seemed too together looking, too well-tailored and polished for the role of Claire’s mother. You can’t imagine her ever hitting her child.

Carol Kane, as Rickey, Claire’s goofy, thrown-together sister, is appropriately goofy and thrown-together. But her character is more cartoon than character, even though she gets the lion’s share of big laughs.

Phillips also plays the duel role of Claire and the institution’s therapist. As a result, one doesn’t really know if Claire is actually playing the therapist or merely spouting the truisms she’s learned from professionals or books at the institution.

Family Week is produced by Jean Doumanian, who has a long history of producing Woody Allen films, and Ron Kastner, who is co-producing the current Broadway revivals of The Real Thing. And I wish they had both waited until Henley did more work on Family Week.

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Family Week

Closed: April 16, 2000