In any work of art, the feeling of watching on performer struggle to keep up with the others leaves an audience feeling discontent and uncomfortable, jarring them out of the world of the work. Painting Churches, the revival at Keen Theater, is one such dreadfully unbalanced play; Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham (Fanny and Gardner Church, respectively) present a wonderful united front as eccentric Boston bluebloods with a life that is slowly falling apart, while Kate Turnbull is left woefully outmatched as their daughter, Mag, a painter who came to do a portrait of them for their first solo show. Chalfant and Cunningham both give nuanced performances, with Chalfant’s coldness slowly receding to reveal deep love, and Cunningham’s amusing bafflement becoming something much darker.
The large majority of the play moves quickly and seamlessly through the sea of old school manners and beliefs it inhabits. The downfall comes when depending on Turnbull (Mag) alone, without the help of Chalfant or Cunningham, to illuminate difficult themes. Mag’s monologue, which ends the first act, is strained, and the discomfort caused by it is palpable. Luckily, most of the play revolves around her interactions with her parents, which are quick-witted and charming.
Tina Howe, the playwright, and Carl Forsman, the director, present Fanny and Gardner in such a magnificent light that Mag, their weary and often angry daughter, seems ridiculous for not appreciating what fine specimens of Bostonians she has as parents. Her complaints seem superficial, especially when compared to the very real issues that Fanny and Gardner face – but Forsman uses that to his advantage, highlighting the generational gap between Mag’s attempts at caring and Fanny’s life of care.
The spot-on costumes, designed by Jennifer Paar, illuminate Fanny’s world, where thrift stores are the only amusement left to her, as well as being an economic necessity. Beowulf Boritt designed the evocative set.