Tina Howe‘s “Painting Churches” is a moving portrait of couple‘s struggle for survival

By Lucy Komisar


In almost a chamber concert of a play, memory and fantasy intrude in Tina Howe‘s drama of a family in which the parents are in decline from their artistically productive years and the daughter is moving up. Her feelings for them are part love and part resentment at what she sees as their self-centered interference with her own artistic development and triumphs.

Fanny (Kathleen Chalfant) and Gardner Church (John Cunningham) – for they, not a religious building, are what daughter Mags (Kate Turnbull) wants to paint — have lived for decades in an elegant townhouse in a fashionable part of Boston.  They appear to be in their 70s. As if to emphasize their dated classic style, the windows are topped with Greek pediments.

They have to sell the house, because Gardner, a famous author who got a Pulitzer, can no longer lecture and they have run out of money. They are packing up to move to their Cape Cod beach house.

Fanny’s eccentricity is emphasized by her odd pill box hats. Then we learn she picks them up in thrift shops, and it’s perhaps a rare enjoyment at a difficult time.

Mags visits –the first time in a year – to help with the packing and paint their picture. It’s hard to get them to sit still. But finally they choose costumes – he a tux and she a long black evening dress – and pose.


But the picture we see is not that painting, but the disintegration of Gardner, the concern and sometimes anger of Fanny, and the self-centeredness of Mags, who takes the moment of a very difficult time for her parents to bring up a childhood trauma. Her mother had banished her from the dining table for playing with and spitting out her food and then destroyed an “art work” she had made by dripping crayons on her bedroom radiator.

Mags is now a successful painter. She has exhibited at Castelli. Now, she teaches at Pratt. But there is still an emotional conflict. She recalls with anger the time her parents embarrassed and humiliated her at her first solo show.

The play is generally well directed by Carl Forsman. Chalfant is biting, Cunningham intense. They provide a solid anchor – a funny word to use since he is sliding into Alzheimers and she is alternately ditsy and angry.   They play the couple as a little nuts but charming and very dependent on each other. Or maybe that‘s about survival. Chalfant shows us a woman fighting to hang on as her husband disintegrates.

However, I don‘t agree with Mags‘ almost hysterical retelling of her childhood crayon art trauma. It shatters the mood. Still, a small quibble in this elegant production.

Painting Churches. Written by Tina Howe; directed by Carl Forsman. Keen Company at Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, New York.212-239-6200. Opened March 6, 2012; closes April 7, 2012.


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