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Man’s Best Friend

In film, and now theater, Jonathan Demme masters the art of ebullient humanism.


Jonathan Demme began his career in movies as a publicist, and one key to his greatness is that he has never entirely relinquished that role. Forty years later, he is the artist as promoter, the artist as apostle and entrepreneur. The writers he engages, actors he casts, musicians he spotlights, and political figures whose lives he documents have voices he wants you to hear—passionately. His job is to put them in their most brilliant light. He builds families of artists and lets them take center stage, his own art concealed. When unchecked, his teeming multiculti humanism can seem overindulgent. But set his vision against a darker one and the alchemy begins—a darker vision such as playwright Beth Henley’s in Family Week, Demme’s first-ever job in live theater.

It’s two days before the first preview, and Demme is perched behind a control panel at the Lucille Lortel Theatre working out sound and light cues while keeping one eye on the actors. His bio states that he was born in 1944, but there is no way in hell this could be true. No 66-year-old is so relentlessly, even scarily boyish. His ebullience notwithstanding, Demme tells me the experience has been “brain-frying.” He has had to learn a new vocabulary. For instance, he blocked the whole play in the first two days of rehearsal. This, it turns out, is just not done. You’re supposed to sit around at a table for a week reading the script, rereading the script, and, you know, rapping about issues. But Demme needed to see the play on its feet. “I had to demystify the stage thing,” he tells me. “I had to make sure I had in my head where everything was going to be spatially. And they went along with it … and finally I was told, ‘We don’t do this.’ ”

Kathleen Chalfant, the most experienced stage actress in Family Week, said it was like the time she worked with a Russian director who didn’t know a word of English: Everything needed to be translated. “We had to show Jonathan the utility of sitting around talking about the play,” she says. “He’s used to exploring the text in postproduction—when he’s editing the movie.”

In fact, Demme considers rehearsal for film “an anathema,” in part because he started out with exploitation mogul Roger Corman, who told him every minute the actors weren’t in front of the camera was wasted time and money. He also fears those big moments of discovery will happen in rehearsal and he won’t get them on film. He’s had to learn that in theater, it’s all about repetition. And that for actors, “you don’t get it right only once. If you’re a fabulous actor, the whole point is to get it right again and again and again.”

“He was so cute,” Henley remembers. “He finally said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do some of our line work now.’ ”

Demme has known Beth Henley for decades. He contacted her after flipping over Crimes of the Heart on Broadway and gave her a tiny part, as a Bible pusher, in his 1984 movie Swing Shift. He directed an episode she wrote for a PBS series called Trying Times starring Rosanna Arquette and David Byrne. They’ve collaborated on movie scripts that were never made. Henley says he turns up at all her productions—in California, Williamstown, Princeton—to show his support. When MCC Theater co-founder Bernard Telsey, who cast Rachel Getting Married, suggested that Demme direct a play, Demme proposed Family Week. Last staged a decade ago and never published, Henley thought it needed work. But Demme “truly helped me believe with his great enthusiasm,” she says.

“I have such a love of Beth’s work,” Demme says. “It always reminds me of Chekhov with all these brilliant flawed people and so much humor amidst the heartbreak of life. I think that Beth could play her writing a lot safer, probably be a lot more commercial, but that’s not what it’s about for her. She’s in love with actors and wants to give them amazing stuff to do, stuff that will test them.”

Family Week has a cast of four, all women. The play centers on the suicidal Claire (Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel in Demme’s Rachel Getting Married), who has checked into a recovery center in the middle of the Arizona desert after the murder of her 17-year-old son. That’s not a recipe for big laughs, yet the play is often bitterly funny. It’s “Family Week” at the center, the time for Claire’s nervous loved ones to visit and reconnect. Three of them arrive: her mother, Lena (Chalfant); sister, Rickey (Quincy Tyler Bernstine); and teenage daughter, Kay (Sami Gayle). The play—which is fast and tight, with no intermission—is a series of confrontations, some tart, some brutal, and some therapeutically contrived. A counselor directs Claire and her mother, daughter, or sister to sit facing one another and recount past injuries, selecting feelings from a list of six—anger, pain, shame, guilt, fear, or loneliness. Family Week could be played as a nasty send-up of the recovery movement. But amid the ludicrously enforced intimacy, momentous emotions come to the surface.

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