Keen Company recently brought back Tina Howe’s beloved 1983 Painting Churches, a play about the dysfunctional, but lovable, Church family. Directed by Carl Forsman, this revival at the Clurman Theater tells the tale of the Churches, Fanny (Kathleen Chalfant), Gardner (John Cunningham), and their daughter, Mags (Kate Turnbull). When the curtain opens, Fanny sits alone admiring her new hat as Gardner types away in the background. They wait anxiously for Mags to return from New York. She is coming to paint a portrait of her parents. Sadly, Mags rarely visits her childhood home, and the bond between parents and child disintegrates just like Gardner’s sanity.
Chalfant brilliantly portrays an aged wife and mother, bound to her senile husband. Cunningham’s touching performance induces tears. This husband and wife paint the picture of unconventionality, whereas their daughter attempts to latch onto any ounce of normalcy in the Church household. Turnbull’s character unveils the truth about her parents – that normal is no longer a part of their vocabulary. The seams that keep the family connected slowly unravel as we see a mother who treats her husband like a child, a daughter who acts more mature than her parents, and a father who is unaware of his ailing condition.
If you go beyond the Churches’ wall of dysfunction, created by endearing and quirky scenes, you will be able to understand the meaning of the performance. At one point, Fanny says “Paint us? How ‘bout you open your eyes and see us as we really are.” She is not only speaking to Mags; this statement addresses each and every one of us. The ties that hold a family together should be recognized, not forgotten, even as people become adults and leave the nest.
Painting Churches examines the definition of a family, and whether or not you accept Howe’s version is up to you. It is a play that exposes humanity’s faults, and uncovers the heart in us all.