Rachel Hemphill Dickson, Tanner Ellis and Joyce Anastasia Murray in Eighth Day of the Week.
Rachel Hemphill Dickson, Tanner Ellis and Joyce Anastasia Murray in Eighth Day of the Week.
Photo bv David Bray

Eighth Day of the Week at Ensemble Has a Special Charm

It smells good at Ensemble Theatre these days where Prester Pickett's dramedy Eighth Day of the Week embraces us with cozy family values. During intermission, the aroma of home cooking wafts through the house. Someone behind me thought somebody had brought in a Happy Meal. But the smell's more substantial, like pot roast and fried potatoes. Warm and inviting, it's the smell of home.

Not surprising, since this is the comfortable Cleveland, Ohio, middle-class family house of Madear (Joyce Anastasia Murray who fairly twinkles in the role), a widow whose two grown daughters (Rachel Hemphill Dickson and Britney Walker-Merritte) have recently moved in. Taken over might be more appropriate.

It's 9 o'clock and while everyone's still asleep upstairs, Mom prepares a solid breakfast for her grandchildren, whose parents don't seem to spend time with them anymore. Madear's concerned for their well-being, while softly ranting about today's parenting skills and formidable lack of them. She putters about the kitchen kneading dough for biscuits, chopping potatoes, setting the table. The problem is, however, that it's nine o'clock at night and her grandchildren are in Chicago with their mother. Madear has advancing Alzheimer's, so these details have slipped her mind, much as others have recently. Like why are her car keys in the freezer? Why was she discovered in her neighbor's kitchen making dinner the night before, thinking she was in her own home? Where's the money she always keeps in a special zipped pocket in her purse?

She might forget names of the people she just met, like daughter Beneathia's stalwart boyfriend Julius (Robert Marshall), but she knows the exact time – to the second – when she moved to Cleveland 50 years ago with her husband and built this house and raised a family. She has faith in the Lord and a hearty supper.

While her daughters are concerned over her failing memory, it's up to son Ben (Shane Warren Jones), a successful Chicago doctor, to properly diagnose her condition. It's 1995, and Alzheimer's wasn't as well-known then or talked about with such regularity as it is now. Can he convince his stubborn mom to come to Chicago to get treatment? Will she desert her home, her family, her beloved and spoiled grandson Billie (Tanner Ellis), who's fallen in with some disreputable characters?

Swirling through the medical drama are family secrets, recriminations, and guilt from the past. Older daughter Beneathia is on knife's-edge, coiled and about to strike. She's the one who's always been in control, cool and calm and knowing what's best for everyone. She and younger sister Dorthia banter about dating, their failed marriages, Dorthia's low-life estranged husband Leroy, but beneath the surface, the sisterly rivalry is fraught and starting to fray. Walker-Merritte adds sass and spice to Dorothia's rebelliousness. Everybody's got problems in Madear's house, and Pickett balances the tension with humorous touches, a bit of pontificating, and a soft spot for the abiding strength inherent in Family.

The play has multiple endings, but the amiable cast overrides any objections. Pickett's slice of life may not be as true as it wants to be, but the warm glow that emanates from it has a charm of its own. The quotidian joys in hashing out problems, of talking them through, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of families sitting down at the dinner table and being there together, has quiet strength and a kind of dignity. There's drama in the everyday. And, boy, does it smell good.

Eighth Day of the Week continues at  7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturday matinees; 3 p.m. Sunday matinees. Through April 15. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information, call 713-520-0055 or visit the ensemblehouston.com. $33-$44.

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