by Tina Howe
Directed by Carl Forsman
Starring Kathleen Chalfant, John Cunningham and Kate Turnbull
A Production of the Keen Company
Theatre Row on 42nd Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

Painting Churches, Tina Howe's play about an eccentric family of three and the images they present—to the world (as they perceive it) and to each other—is not quite as striking in its current Keen Company revival as it was upon its off- Broadway debut in 1983 This doesn't appear to be the fault of director Carl Forsman's altogether competent production, but more the play's seeming much more a thing of its era than anyone might have suspected. Funny how that can happen, especially when there's nothing particularly in the text that has overt dependence upon the present day of its creation. But what couldn't be accounted for was the state of a future Zeitgeist, that would give its dramatic premise a new, retroactive context.

                        The title is a play on words: The family are the Churches; the elderly parents are Fanny (Kathleen Chalfant) and her renowned poet husband Gardner (John Cunningham); and daughter Margaret (Kate Turnbull) has returned home after a long absence—and several major breakthroughs in her career as a portraitist—to capture their essence on canvas. The problem is, as familiar as they are with each other’s behaviors and tics, those behaviors and tics make them enigmas to each other as well, so “essence” is, to put it mildly, an elusive quality. And added to this is the realization that Gardner has passed beyond eccentricity and through senility to a condition that the play doesn’t name, but is causing him to slowly unravel. It is eventually recognized by us in the audience as Alzheimer’s, yet it is not recognized in the play as such, because Ms. Howe doesn’t dramatize mother and daughter as if they even know what it is. There’s a big confrontation between them in which the daughter, having had no idea what was going on, wonders how mother can just treat father like a child; and mother blasts back that daughter can’t just disappear for a year at a time and then just drop in to pass judgment without knowing how, in fact, mother has been holding father together. In 1983, when Ms. Howe’s play debuted, Alzheimer’s was just entering the landscape as a “disease trademark,” if you will. (It had been identified early in the century but not acknowledged by the scientific community as a common malady until 1977.) So it was easier to simply go with the flow of an eccentric father on the decline as an aspect of coming to grips with the age of a loved one.

                        But Gardner’s decline is peppered with not only memory loss, but dementia and hints of other more serious indicia, that should, perhaps, suggest even more serious symptomology; so the response of the Church women seems not quite appropriate somehow. It conjures, oddly, the notion of watching Ibsen’s Ghosts and trying, with a 2012 head, to buy into the 1881 notion of inherited syphilis. Everything about it is a hair or two off; nor does the, at first, very over-written dramatization of how the crazy family members keep missing each other's signals, help matters, because along with the rest, it keeps you from suspending disbelief as much as you’d like.

                        The performances of old pros Chalfant and Cunningham as the parents are lovely in that cherished  way of old pros; Ms. Turnbull alternates between grounded and hysterical without sufficient transitional tissue to blend the two states convincingly. But she’s an able performer, so I wonder if that’s not at least partially a flaw of direction (or direction neglected).

                        In any event, it all adds up to a play that’s become an eccentric curiosity, where something that landed as poetic and delicate once stood.

                        Sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing…

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