Thursday, March 15, 2012

Painting Churches

Kathleen Chalfant, John Cunningham
(photo: Carol Rosegg)
It's hard to know how to respond to Tina Howe's 1984 Pulitzer-Prize-nominated play Painting Churches in 2012. It's not the play's fault that the past three decades of theatre have been stuffed full of adult children coming home and fighting with their parents. (Recent example: Other Desert Cities, which resembles Painting Churches in some significant ways, right down to the petulant daughter who learns, gasp, that her parents aren't quite what she thinks.)

Painting Churches's plot is simple and familiar: artistic, unappreciated adult child visits. Fights are fought; old wounds are reopened; a form of reconciliation occurs.

To work to full advantage, Painting Churches requires a balanced triangle, with mother, father, and child having strengths and flaws, legitimate grudges and sympathetic blind spots. In this production, however, due to the casting and awkward direction by Carl Forsman, the parents come across as difficult but likeable while the daughter comes across as a loud, overgrown, whining baby.

John Cunningham does nicely as the father sinking into dementia, but he also has the most consistent--and most consistently sympathetic--character. Kathleen Chalfant does well with the quiet moments but seems less comfortable being "quirky." Both Cunningham and Chalfant mostly come across as real people, but Kate Turnball, in the least sympathetic role, declaims and emotes and suffers and acts. Forsman has done her no favors in allowing her to (or asking her to?) completely unbalance the triangle. In addition, the threesome is not physically convincing as a family.

The set is handsome. The costumes are effective. The lighting is odd (but I think they were having tech troubles the night I went). The musical choices are a bit heavy-handed.

And the title is flatout odd. The family's last name is Church, and the daughter, an artist, wants to paint her parents. Painting Churches. Get it? But why?

(press ticket; fourth row on the aisle)

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