Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why Howe: Painting Churches 2009

Bob Wells, Jolene Hayes, Lynn Wells at NCRT
Tina Howe nearly nabbed the Pulitzer for Painting Churches in 1984, and by 1986, when I saw the Virginia Stage Company production in Norfolk, this play was on its way to becoming a regional theatre staple. (I saw Broadway veteran Avril Gentles, regional theatre stalwart Wyman Pendleton and young Jordan Baker, familiar now from TV, especially a recurring role in The New Adventures of Old Christine.)

Unlike one of Howe’s earlier plays, which had a cast of 44 (“The seventies—those were the days,” Laurie Anderson used to say in the eighties), Painting Churches has a cast of three and a single set, and so has tempted many unwary theatres with the idea that it’s simple to do.

The story is easy to outline—a young painter (Margaret Church, called “Mags”) returns from Manhattan to Boston to help her aging parents pack up their house for a permanent move to the country, and also to paint their portrait. Her parents are blue-blood aristocrats peculiar to Boston: well-born, highly educated, even famous (Mag’s father, Gardner Church, was a prominent poet who did win Pulitzers) but with depleted financial fortunes. Tina Howe’s father, broadcaster and writer Quincy Howe, came from such a Boston breed, and Gardner is said to be based on him, though it seems there’s some echoes of poet Robert Lowell as well.

Though homey comedy is emphasized in the beginning of the play, the drama that accrues involves both the consequences of uneven aging, and the unresolved relationship of parents and daughter.

The current North Coast Repertory Theatre production features Bob Wells as Gardner and Lynne Wells as his wife, Fanny. It’s a treat to see them act together (I’d call them the North Coast Lunts if I thought anyone knew anymore who the Lunts were.) Bob slithers and squints, balancing the comedy with the character’s residual gravity. Lynne is a fine comic partner but can cause shivers with a look--and she keeps the most consistent Boston accent. Jolene Hayes is energetic and emotive as Mags, and has her own solid comic as well as dramatic turns, including some physical moments.

Director Renee Grinnell propels them all around a simple but evocative set by Katie Pratt, filling the stage with motion and emotion. There are harrowing images, like the scattered manuscript pages and the disordered end of an honored life summed up by books being piled according to color.

But for me, these praiseworthy elements—plus this much-praised play—did not come together, when I saw it opening night. It could be that the tone this play needs is harder to achieve than it might seem. Or maybe this play’s time has passed, and it is too overwrought and overwritten to be more than sentimentalized melodrama.

There’s some fine writing, there are moments to admire, and aspects of the characters that may well spark responses and recognitions in the audience. It’s certainly worth going just to see Bob and Lynne Wells perform. But the play and the production did not work for me as a whole.

I frankly don't know how to disentangle my responses. Even before going, I wondered how a North Coast audience would warm up to such an East Coast and specifically Boston class as the Churches. (The folks in Norfolk seemed to, as I recall, but then southern gentility had some things in common.) This North Coast Rep production seemed to go for universality (though they tried the accents), and casting a well-known North Coast couple automatically relocated it a bit. But in doing so, it lost some subtlety that may be necessary.

On the other hand, how much is in the script, and how much was deeded by the original cast and production team? Tina Howe has written often about art and artist (as well as about aging), but I found the notions of art (of painting and of poetry) in this play pretty simplistic. Or are the relevant lines meant ironically? Hard to tell.

The problems and terrors of aging are real (though this play is not explicitly or even necessarily about Alzheimer’s Disease, despite some statements to the contrary.) But in general, its approach to aging seems a bit antique. It may be that Painting Churches is a younger woman’s play about old age. More than a quarter century later, Tina Howe is in her seventies, with perhaps a different perspective in her new play, Chasing Manet, which has just opened at Primary Stages in New York. It’s about two women who escape from their old age home.

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