Tina Howe’s elegant three-character drama Painting Churches, which was a 1984 Pulitzer finalist, is ripe for a major revival by one of New York’s major not-for-profit companies. If some stars can be found, perhaps it can even receive a commercial Broadway production. Till then, we’ll all have to deal with the Keen Company’s respectable but lackluster and uninspired Off-Broadway production at Theatre Row.
Set in the drawing room of a fancy Boston townhouse, Fanny (Kathleen Chalfant) and Gardner Church (John Cunningham), an elderly WASPy couple, are preparing to leave their longtime home and move into a small place on Cape Cod. Their daughter Mags (Kate Turnbull), who is a rising visual artist in Manhattan, has come home to help them with the move. But more than just that, Mags wants to paint a portrait of her parents. While the conversations among the family begin gently enough, the formalities and niceties are eventually dropped.
Fanny, who acts like an unconventional grande dame, reveals to Mags, who has carefully avoided her parents for many years, how Gardner, formerly one of the nation’s most celebrated poets, has lost his marbles and needs constant supervision. The book of poetry criticism that Gardner has been working on for ages is just a bunch of gibberish. Although Fanny clearly still loves Gardner, she remains frustrated by her unending responsibilities. Their fashionable life of high society is clearly over. Even Mags, in a dramatic monologue at the end of act one, reveals some unpleasant facts about her adolescence.
Chalfant, whose transcendent performance in the original production of Wit is becoming the stuff of legend, conveys Fanny’s quirkiness with great enthusiasm as well as her strength in protecting her husband. Cunningham presents Gardner’s gentle personality and likelihood to wander off mentally into far-off directions.
But in spite of these two strong performances, Carl Forsman’s production never quite catches fire theatrically or does justice to the lyricism inherent in Howe’s script. The biggest flaw involves the casting of Turnbull, whose whiny, one-note performance looks all the more amateurish compared with Chalfant and Cunningham.
A major problem with Beowulf Boritt’s minimal set, which tries to suggest the Church residence with just a few set pieces, is that it does not fully convey the grandeur of their home in full detail. The gradual removal of items and furniture as the play rolls along also has less of a chilling effect on the audience.