'Painting Churches' is a genteel but complex family portrait
Portraits of dysfunctional families who lead externally idyllic lives are far from uncommon in the theater. That makes the freshness and the power of Tina Howe's "Painting Churches" all the more admirable.
Howe's 30-year-old play opens this summer's season for Banyan Theater. The play is gorgeous, gentle and forceful, and often funny. And, this staging, directed by Melliss Kenworthy, amplifies many of its strengths.
There's no plot to carry the audience through "Painting Churches." Instead, Howe offers a flowing emotional dynamic and a gradual revelation of the truth behind the facade of an intriguing and likable family.
They are Gardner and Fanny Church, educated and aristocratic Bostoners. Gardner's a Pulitzer-winning poet and their daughter Mags, a painter who's starting to attract serious attention.
As we meet them, Gardner and Fanny are packing to move to a smaller house. Mags has come, on an infrequent visit, to help them and to paint their portrait.
It's obvious that they all love each other and like each other, and they even have a lot of fun together. But Gardner is starting to lose his faculties. He can no longer compose poetry, and spends his days typing the work of other poets for a book of criticism he's working on -- and both he and Fanny are too fond of cocktails.
At the end of the first act, Mags delivers a long speech that reveals the reason for the play, an incident of excessive discipline -- maybe abuse -- in her childhood that led to her becoming an artist. Mags has never stopped thinking about it; Fanny, the perpetrator, barely remembers.
Through it all, as they try to come terms with each other, parents and child talk to each other but don't listen to each other; words fly past their targets. Mags tries to seriously discuss her life and work and Fanny comments that Mags is cute when she talks that way.
Jenny Aldrich and Don Walker play Fanny and Gardner with charm, texture and delicacy. In their hands, the Churches have a tangible life before and after the action of the play; you almost want to call Fanny and Gardner the day after you see the play and ask how they're getting along. Probably, the fact that Aldrich and Walker are married in real life informs and enriches their performances.
Olivia Williamson, as Mags, is OK, but her performance doesn't have the richness or magnetism of those of Aldrich and Gardner. And some of her choices are odd: She delivers that key speech at the end of Act One, the emotional apex of the play and a crucial moment in her family's life, staring out into space instead of looking her parents in the eye. To be fair, that may have been the director's choice, but in any case it's weak.
Because of Williamson's average performance, the relationship between the parents and the daughter, which should be central to the play, becomes secondary. But the lovely, complex and evolving relationship between Fanny and Gardner Church is so compelling that this production is a joy.
Details: Through July 14 at the Jane B. Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 2 p.m. July 4, 6-7, 13-14 and 8 p.m. July 2, 5-6 and 10-13; Tickets: $28.50. Information: 941-351-2808, www.banyantheatercompany.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.