When we look at a painting, our eyes naturally begin viewing the image from the lower left, then sweep upward and to the right. Throughout history great artists (including Leonardo Da Vinci and Jacque Louis David) have taken advantage of this biological quirk by arranging the subjects of their portraits in triangular composition in order to draw the viewer’s eye to the most significant aspects of the painting. Composition is important not only for art, but also for the stage. In the Keen Company’s revival of Painting Churches directed by Carl Forsman at the Harold Clurman Theater, playwright Tina Howe poignantly portrays the psychosomatic tension between grownup children and their aging parents via the triangular juxtaposition of painter Mags Church (Kate Turnbull), and her eccentric and acclaimed parents Fanny Church (Kathleen Chalfant) and Gardner Church (John Cunningham).
The trio of characters are involved in three different undertakings which span the course of the play: Mags seeks to paint a portrait of her parents; Gardner attempts to write a manuscript of poetry analysis; and Fanny endeavors to pack all their belongings in preparation for the elder Churches’ impending move from their handsome mansion to a smaller assisted living home. This three-sided plot forces each of the Churches to confront the past in their own way, while illuminating the ravages of old age and dementia, euphemistically referred to as the “long goodbye.” This is fitting, as Ms. Howe’s script itself morphs into a long goodbye to the Churches’ mansion, and most heart-wrenchingly of all, their independence and memory.
Ms. Howe’s dialogue is down-to-earth and life-like; yet when Gardner starts spouting poetry the dialogue soars with lyricism. His rendition of Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” reverberates throughout the entire play. As Gardner’s world comes down all around him, Fanny at first appears to regard his forgetfulness with cold amusement and icy irritation. Eventually Fanny’s indifferent mask melts to reveal the burning love she still feels for Gardner. This fiery motif is reflected in the color scheme of Beowulf Borritt’s artfully arranged set.
The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Ms. Chalfant’s brilliant performance as Fanny. Her imperious, aristocratic eccentricities vividly convey Fanny’s fierce motherly instinct to take care of (and control) her family. Mr. Cunningham counters Ms. Chalfant with a lovable, almost tragic innocence. As Mags, Kate Turnbull desperately strives for her parents’ approval, at times appearing petulant and self-absorbed. Mags’ woes seem trivial because, by the time she has finally worked up the courage to confront her parents’ failings; age has turned them into different people altogether.
Ms. Howe’s script has aged well in this revival of Painting Churches, and will not soon be forgotten.