nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
March 2, 2012
I first discovered Tina Howe’s beautiful Painting Churches in a college drama class, via the American Playhouse telecast from the mid-'80s. I was a freshman; my paternal grandfather was in the final stages of his life, and my dad had spent the years since my grandmother died acting, along with a host of home health care workers, as his caretaker. I saw a lot of what we were going through in the play, and when grandpa left us later that semester, indeed it was a major change. I never returned to Painting Churches; not on purpose, just because the opportunity had never presented itself. Now, Keen Company is revisiting the work, giving it its first major New York revival, featuring Kathleen Chalfant, John Cunningham, and Kate Turnbull. It’s wonderful to see the play again, even though Carl Forsman’s production never hits the nail on the head.
In this intensely personal piece, Howe examines the gradual shifts in the parental-child relationship as they age, and how an artist truly sees, for the very first time, her subjects, who happen to her parents. At rise, Fanny and Gardner Church (Chalfant and Cunningham) are boxing up their entire lives as they prepare to move from their stately manse in Boston to their smaller cottage in Cape Cod. The reason for the move is two-fold; their income has severely decreased as Gardner, a world-renowned poet, has become too feeble to tour and lecture, and a smaller home would be easier for Fanny to watch over him as she becomes his erstwhile caretaker. They’re eagerly awaiting the arrival of Mags (Turnbull), their New Yorker artist daughter, who announces that not only will she be helping them pack, but she will also be painting their portrait. In doing so, she comes to realize that her parents are no longer how she once thought of them; they’re no longer the stoic society people she envisioned, they’re a doddering older couple, and the parent-child roles are quickly reversing.
Forsman’s genuinely well-meaning production lacks both an emotional center and an emotional reality. The usually reliable actors have been directed to be as histrionic as possible, complete with shrill and stilted line readings, awkward moments, and a lot of flailing. Chalfant and Cunningham each have moments where they escape: she quietly devastates with a boffo second act monologue; he’s believable at portraying a man in the throes of what today would likely be called Dementia. It’s Turnbull who fares the least well, nailing Mags’ insecurity but never moving beyond it. By play’s end, you never quite believe that she's found the maturity to come to terms with their new roles.
The design doesn’t really help, either, from Beowulf Boritt’s small, claustrophobic set to Jennifer Paar’s costumes, in which the actors never look comfortable. Ryan Rumery’s original musical score, which covers, along with Josh Bradford’s lighting, the prolonged scene changes, is strangely folksy.
Although the production doesn’t work it’s still worthwhile to see. Painting Churches is a true American classic.