The lights go down and you are in the living room of an upscale Boston home. The walls glow through the darkness because of their vibrant pastel green coloring. The translucent white curtains draped over each side of the (very convincing) windows make the room come to life. And yet there is an eeriness about the space. This contrast between obvious splendor and some underlying unrest is the backdrop for the world Tina Howe unfolds.
Painting Churches, presented by the Keen Company, tells the story of Mags (Elizabeth McGovern), a young artist in her mid 20s, as she returns to her parents’ home in Boston. Although she is legally, physically, theoretically a woman, Mags is still best described as a girl. She has not yet truly found herself. She still suffers from the wounds inflicted on her by her troubled childhood; the pain freezes her in a preadolescent state of insecurity. Mags wishes to paint her mother and father’s portrait before her first showing at the Leo Castelli Gallery. She searches for closure. Instead, Fanny, her mother (played by Marian Seldes) slowly and meticulously tears all her old lacerations open.
The new relationship between her parents stupefies Mags as well as the audience. It swings wildly from the charming remains of a once sprightly romance, to the unnerving dependency of a simpleton and his caretaker. Gardner, Mag’s father, (played by George N. Martin) is deteriorating with age. He tries his hardest to play his role in his eccentric marriage, but his mind gets arrested in bouts of infantile anger and fear. To cope, Fanny finds herself assuaging these situations by regarding Gardner as no more than a stupid child. At the pinnacle of Gardner’s mental regression he wets himself mid conversation. His wife’s only reaction is unbridled laughter, and Mags is left in awe of his humiliation.
Both the script and the performance make this piece electrifying. Mags describes that the melting of her first masterpiece (which she made from crayons as a child) was like watching “spilled jello, trembling and pulsating.” The language courses with imagery. Suddenly her fear and innocence is real. Elizabeth McGovern’s acting ability compliments the voice of the language. On stage she wears away right in front of us the way Mags pictures her masterpiece eroding.
Tina Howe paints an incredible picture on the canvas of the Clurman Theater Stage. Painting Churches is timeless and effervescent.