Friday, March 30, 2012

"Painting Churches" - A Quiet Play That Touches The Heart

By Judd Hollander

The Keen Company presents a heart-tugging tale about the perils of growing old and the fear of having one's life literally pulled out from under them in a powerful and intimate revival of Tina Howe's Painting Churches at Theatre Row Studios.

The Churches in question are Fanny (Kathleen Chalfant) and Gardner (John Cunningham), a long-time married couple selling the family home in the Tony enclave of Beacon Hill, Massachusetts. Helping them in this endeavor is their daughter Mags (Kate Turnbull), a freelance artist and New York bohemian who's about to have a major show at a Big Apple gallery. Mags also has an ulterior motive in helping out her folks, that being obtaining their promise to finally let her paint their portrait, something Mags has wanted to do for years.

However it soon become apparent something is not right with Mags' parents. Fanny has the habit of changing the subject at the drop of a hat, going off on one verbal tangent after another, to the ever-increasing consternation of her daughter. At the same time Gardner, a noted poet by trade, seems prone to fits of forgetfulness and rage when staying on a topic for too long. Symptoms, it turns out, of a much deeper problem. He's also completely obsessed with finishing his upcoming book on literary criticism. It eventually becomes apparent that Fanny is making a desperate attempt to uphold an appearance of normalcy for the sake of her marriage and their relationship to the outside world. A world, one which includes Mags, that doesn't really want to know the truth of what is actually happening, even when faced with it head-on.

With Painting Churches, Howe has constructed the exterior of a seemingly perfect life only to slowly show the cracks from within. At the same time, her piece taps into the universal fear of not being in control of one's life, as well as wondering just who will be there to take care of you in your time of need. What makes the play so shattering is that the three people presented in this situation all feel frighteningly real. Credit for this must go not only to Howe's script and the various performers, all of whom do an absolutely superb job, but also to Carl Forsman's fluid yet meticulous direction, which introduces the characters and their situation in a manner akin to slowly unwrapping a massive package. In this way, the different elements of the production carefully pull the audience into the unveiling until the final piece of tissue paper falls away to reveal the tragic reality inside for all to see.

Chalfant does a fine job as Fanny, the lynchpin of the tale, holding the situation and her marriage together by doing whatever is necessary to ensure a future for both herself and her husband. Fanny's best moments come towards the end of the play when, even after all is revealed, she continues to deal with everything so matter-of-factly because she has become so completely resigned to the circumstances by that point. At the same time, she takes Mags witheringly to task for never being around her family unless she needs something from them; such as the portrait of her parents. It also helps that Fanny's love for her husband is quite evident throughout.

Turnbull is good as Mags, a young woman with her own life and career, who has put her parents on hold continually, so to speak, over the years. Also, like many grown children, she attempts to balance her own personal needs with those of her parents, but not always succeeding. While her love for Fanny and Gardiner is never in question, it is plain to see she has delayed returning to see them for far too long and one is left with the question as to what she will do after the full extent of their situation is revealed to her.

Cunningham has the hardest role in the play, Gardiner being more a reactive character than a proactive one, often battling situations of helplessness and denial, but always presented in a totally effective and three-dimensional way. Amiable as a sort of cut-up bon vivant when first seen, as the play progresses, the emotions he evokes change from that of comic congeniality to ones of pity and loss.

Costumes by Jennifer Parr are lovely - especially the outfits worn by Turnbull, which nicely show the contrast of someone living the artistic life in New York, as opposed to the more conservative dress of an elderly Beacon Hill couple. The gown Fanny wears for her portrait sitting is also quite fetching.

The scenic design by Beowulf Boritt also comes off well - the just-shy-of-ostentatious living room of the Churches working perfectly as an upper-crust setting, but the set also having enough of an intimate feel to allow the location to both feel welcoming to the audience and also be a part of the story.

Painting Churches offers a gentle and brutally honest portrait of growing old and being faced with the threat of losing all you once were inside, and a look at limited options that follow. This is a play and a production that should definitely be seen.

Painting Churches
Written by Tina Howe

Featuring: Kathleen Chalfant (Fanny), John Cunningham (Gardner), Kate Turnbull (Mags)

Directed by: Carl Forsman
Stage Manager: Jeff Meyers
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Jennifer Paar
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Sound Design and Original Music: Ryan Rumery
Props Design: Ricola Wille
Technical Director: Marshall Miller
Assistant Stage Manager: Diane Healy
Casting Director: Calleri Casting
Assistant Set Designer: Jared Rutherford
Assistant Costume Designer: Amanda Jenks
Assistant Lighting Designer: Daisy Long
Assistant Sound Designer: Florian Staab
Assistant Production Manager: Michael Lapinsky
House Manager: Caleb Eigsti
Wardrobe Supervisor: Jamie Bertoluzzi
Master Electrician: Jeffrey Toombs
Assistant Director: Dorit Katzenelenbogen
Fight Choreography: Paul Molnar
Draper: Marie Stair
Hair Design: Antonio Soddu
Crew: Cressa Amundsen, Jen Brinker, Lee C. Bush, Kia Rogers, Samuel Payne, Demetrius Jacks, Geoffrey Barnes, Jesse Wilson, Joe Truman, Mary Stazewski, Chris Haag, Kevin Strano, Adam Mark Bishop, Scott Basten, Laura Schoch

Presented by the Keen Company
Clurman Theatre
Theatre Row Studios
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: Two Hours
Closes: April 22, 2012

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