It is funny how time and our own ever-evolving perspective can sometimes play havoc with memories, particularly how we remember the way certain plays once affected us and where our empathy may have been. I suspect that I am seeing Tina Howe’s 1983 play “Painting Churches” — about a daughter’s homecoming and parents’ home-leaving — in a much different light from when I saw it originally Off Broadway.
The commendable Keen Company with its mission to present “sincere” plays is presenting a very fine revival of this often wacky but always perceptive play in which pathos and humor are blended to purposefully discomforting effect. “Painting Churches” brings an original twist to the old story of the prodigal returning home to reestablish frayed ties with parents.
Margaret (“Mags”) Churchill (Kate Turnbull) is a portrait artist who has achieved fame and recognition producing a style of work that is considered so “out” that it is considered “in.” Essentially estranged from her parents since pursuing a career in art and resisting a life that includes marrying into wealth and social position, Mags returns to the grandiose Beacon Hill family home to paint a portrait of her aging parents Gardner (John Cunningham) and Fanny Church (Kathleen Chalfant). She has a mission that may be blinding her from the reality that greets her. Now in their dotage, Fanny and Gardner are in the midst of packing up and moving, mainly for economic reasons, to a small cottage.
The reunion becomes an unsettling clash of willful, disparate personalities, each of them irrefutably rigid and each resistant to the needs of the other. The three characters that Howe has created may appear at first to be freshly neurotic, but they soon begin to resonate with very familiar virtues and flaws.
At first Mags is simply infuriating as she arrives home with what appears to be a callous lack of awareness, understanding, empathy, or concern for her parents’ situation and particularly for the dilemma facing her too often distracted mother. What comes to light is the inner rage and resentment that Mags harbors toward Fanny, who remains dismissive about Mags’s career as an artist, despite her current success. The lack of approval that Mags feels goes back to her childhood when she would be severely punished for improper conduct, particularly her eating habits and table manners. In adulthood, it is her mother’s derisive attitude toward her art that has increased Mags’s alienation from the family, all the while maintaining a love for her seriously preoccupied father.
Gardner, affectionately called Gar by his to-the-manor-born wife, has effectively succumbed to the primary stages of senility following a renowned career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet. He spends his days writing reams of mostly incoherent literary criticism. Fidgeting around and modeling out of date hats purchased at a local second hand shop, Fanny dotes on Gar as she struggles with her increasing frustration with his infirmity, although neither seem to forget the pleasurable daily ritual of the cocktail hour.
The cobwebbed remnants of their romance are recaptured in lilting soliloquies as is Mags’s own painful retelling of her youthful struggle to assert her artistic nature and personal freedom. Turnbull is in turn overbearingly abrasive and demonstrably effusive as the daughter whose inability to see her parents as they are in the moment makes her less a victim of her parents’ self-centeredness than as a contemporary remake of her mother. Kathleen Chalfant has a commanding grip on the superficial mannerisms that define Fanny, a woman who eventually earns our sympathy for simply being appallingly true to her own nature.
John Cunningham is touching as the father who can fall just as easily into the past as he can spring forward to the present. Carl Forsman’s assured direction, Beowulf Boritt’s elegant living room setting, and Josh Bradford’s lighting set the ambiance for an evening that somehow (maybe because of my being 29 years older than when I first saw the play) gave me a different perspective: more compassion for the (admittedly) self-absorbed, condescending parents and less tolerance for the estranged daughter who seems to be demonstrably oblivious to her parents’ deteriorating health and circumstances.
What gives the play its most unsettling quality is how we become aware just how desperate Mags is to have her parents sit for a portrait, a final attempt perhaps to create on canvas what she sees and perhaps what she would like for them to see — and even appreciate — about her.
I just hope that that is what Howe intends, and if not, it gave me food for thought. ***
“Painting Churches,” through Thursday, April 22, Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street. $60. 212-239-6200.
#b#‘Broadway by the Year’#/b#
This is the 12th season of one of the most popular and critically acclaimed ongoing musical entertainments in the Broadway area.
Four times during the season, a different year is celebrated featuring great songs from musicals that played on Broadway during that year and performed by some of the most talented singing and dancing stars from Broadway and cabaret. Coming up on Monday, March 19, is “The Musicals of 1950,” under the direction of Alexander Gemignani, featuring songs from such classic shows as Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam,” and Cole Porter’s “Out of this World.”
Writer-host-producer Scott Siegel threads the always lively numbers together with a disarming and witty narrative. Musical support continues with the always terrific Ross Patterson on-stage band. Musical theater lovers should not miss this one. Also mark your calendar for upcoming “The Broadway Musicals of 1975” on May 2.
“The Broadway Musicals of 1950,” one night only, Monday, March 19, Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street $55, $50, $45. 800-982-2787 or go to the Town Hall box-office between noon and 6 p.m. (except Sundays). 212-840-2824.
The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.