Painting Churches

by Tina Howe
Directed by Carl Forsman
Featuring Kathleen Chalfant, John Cunningham, Kate Turnbull
Keen Company @ Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
March 6, 2012 — April 7, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 2, 2012

Pater-familias academic/poet Gardner (John Cunningham) is losing his grip, and mater-familias Fanny (Kathleen Chalfant) gently and acerbically, in equal measures, navigates the practical and emotional waters of tending to his needs while downsizing from their long-held Beacon Hill townhouse home in Tina Howe‘s Painting Churches. Daughter Mags (Kate Turnbull), adult child, petulant artist (Mom doesn’t understand me), visits from New York City to “help” with the packing yet is present more for her own need to preserve something about her parents and her home as she imagines them to be, perhaps in a never land they never truly occupied. She will paint a portrait. The parents are gentle and pampered. Mags might be a talented artist but seems (at least in this casting) to be a self-indulgent brat resisting truly helping her parents at a time of transition. The humor of this layered play is a bit lost in the mix of styles and the adult child a bit too old to be so oblivious to her parents’ situation. The dramatic arc of the spare staging highlights the limits of the story at the core, or perhaps an imbalance of acting styles at play.

And we as audience are held at a distance from the emotional moments in this story. Spare and suggestive set design by Beowolf Boritt (window frames and suspended cornices rather than solid walls, that kind of thing) places us in a Beckett kind of no-person’s land, while the author’s specific choices of Beacon Hill and patrician main character backgrounds fight against this haiku approach to creating the world of the play. Sound design (Ryan Rumery) is spare and specific — not modernist and atonal (which one might expect from the set design) but simple original music and romantic Chopin (referenced, yes, in a dream sequence reported by Dad). And our sympathies are similarly at odds with this well-to-do family at a turning point, especially given the economic context of 2012. We learn that one reason for the move and the home downsizing is the relative paucity of poet Gardner’s speaking engagements, and his inability to complete the book on which he is working as a critic — cue facile critic jokes — now that he is unable to write his own poetry. Gardner is losing it a bit but remains docile and gentle (and tells a stunning version of a dream that inspired in me memories of childhood dreams of disruption, of strangers in homes, at points of change). Chalfant as Fanny is regal yet goofy with a touch of nastiness, and soon quiets any real worries about finances with a simple statement: “Of course we have our savings and our various trust funds.” (Reminds me of pampered 20 somethings I knew in graduate school who talked about the “savings we touch and the savings we don’t touch.”) In the context of this play, the drama then moves to Mags and her ability or inability to cope with being an adult. And in this case our Mags presents as monochromatic and self-referential.

So this production feels a bit like a period piece with lovely lyrical moments, squeezed into post-modernist guise, evoking a particular class context for a simple adult child’s challenges. The parents are who they are and remain so, retaining a consistent understanding of their child and their world. In this presentation our adult Mags seems a few grades behind and we don’t have much sympathy for the tutoring she needs to catch up. As my mother used to say: “pull up your socks” and get on with it.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 6, 2012)

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