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Man’s Best Friend


Rosemarie DeWitt in Family Week.   

“This play moves me so deeply,” Demme says, “because it explores when someone is hit so profoundly with something so tragic and then asks: ‘Now, what do we do for that person? Is there anything we can do in the face of that?’ One of the early synopses that I saw that the theater company had done described it as Beth Henley’s ‘lacerating vision’ of the mental-health community—and it’s not that at all. What appears to be at first an evisceration turns out to be a tremendous appreciation for the act of trying to help people.”

Demme and Henley shuffled and reshuffled scenes and threw out the original ending. Their collaboration had only one source of tension—by all signs a profitable one. DeWitt thinks Henley saw the family as “really dismantled by the end.” Chalfant adds that in the playwright’s view, the world is “fundamentally tragic,” the distance among individuals almost unbridgeable. But Demme is more hopeful. He likes the recovery movement, even with its authoritarianism and reductive jargon. He believes in anything that forces people to accept one another’s “separate realities.” “If you can get the empathy thing jump-started, it’s great,” he says. “Without that, we’re screwed.”

It must have been a quiet tug-of-war, since Henley is as soft-spoken and halting as her characters are extroverted, and Demme is tender and solicitous. And they do overlap in their reverence for Chekhov. “Jonathan is not judgmental,” says Henley. “He’s got a very soulful understanding of the universe. He loves human beings and he loves their flaws, and he’s not afraid for people to have their needs and longings even if it turns ugly because that’s just human.”

The process of hashing all this out, says Demme, has been thrilling. “The job is, you go to work and you’re in a room with four fantastic actors and your workday is watching them act then talking about it and going home. I said to them on the first day, ‘Is this what you people do?’ ”

Demme almost gave up working with actors after a grueling experience with his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate. (No, it wasn’t a patch on the original, but it had its own urgency and integrity; it was a Manchurian Candidate for the Bush-Cheney era.) “It was such a hassle, the studio and the producers and the … oh, God … I said, enough with the fiction already. I’m perfectly happy to do documentaries and performance films.” But then he got Jenny Lumet’s script for Rachel Getting Married and decided to make it in a different way: “I finally achieved a zero-rehearsal mode!”

He’s not exaggerating. DeWitt recalls, “The big dinner we shot three times, in 40-minute takes with lots of cameras going. You never knew what would end up in the film. It wasn’t until I saw it that I understood what Jonathan was doing.”

Many of Demme’s instincts ended up translating beautifully to theater. Even in a tech rehearsal, he’s alert to small, spontaneous things the actors do that will make the play feel more alive. Onstage, young Sami Gayle puts on headphones and launches into a frenzied hip-hop dance for the amusement of her co-stars. Demme asks her to do it again, then says, “Can we use that? Let’s use that.” It goes into the play that night at a key moment—when Kay first hears her parents are divorcing and wants to shut out the world.

“He’s such a keen observer of human behavior,” says DeWitt. “You find great moments in unexpected places and it changes your process, changes the dynamics of everyone in the room. You throw out all your preconceived notions.”

As the tech rehearsal drags on, production stage manager Lisa Porter asks Demme if he minds that the “Get Well” and “Happy Birthday” balloons that Kay brought for Claire have been onstage for several scenes. “I like it,” says Demme. “It’s a grim reminder—no, not a grim reminder, a poignant reminder.” That quick, reflexive substitution tells you much about how he thinks. “Grim” is mordant and final. “Poignant” is less bitterly conclusive.

Still, Demme can’t get rid of all that is grim. Young Kay’s exit from the play follows the most emotionally violent scene, in which Claire attacks her daughter with a giant stuffed panda she has been ordered by her therapists to carry. Demme had decided Family Week should open with Kay addressing the audience, which would make the rest of the play a flashback. He wanted the audience to know that she was all right, that she’d made it home safely, that she was coping with what had happened.

But it doesn’t work, and after the first preview a few nights later, the prologue is dropped. Demme is visibly upset.

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