note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Living with an aging, debilitated, beloved family member who was once erudite and a vibrant member of society is painful.
In Tina Howe’s 1984 Outer Critics Circle Award-winning play, “Painting Churches,” she poignantly relates the story of fictitious, famous Boston poet, Gardner Church, who is mentally fading away; his wife, Fanny, who is trying desperately to care for him; and their daughter, Margaret, or Mags, a rising New York City painter. Although Mags (Katie Donovan), has come home from New York City to help her parents prepare for their move, she has an ulterior goal - to paint their portrait. She excitedly announces she has been chosen for a one-woman exhibit in a prestigious gallery, a fact that becomes diluted in the shuffle of packing boxes and her parents’ daily ritual of sipping Dubonnet.
The Churches, who live on Beacon Hill, have enjoyed a privileged life; but as Gardner becomes increasingly doddering, their money is dwindling. The couple must sell their house and move year-round to their small cottage in Cotuit.
Jean Fogle’s handsome, compact set, with its fine furniture and barren walls etched with dusty imprints of removed paintings, are telltale signs of the Churches’ brahmin lifestyle. Their references to Boston landmarks Beacon Hill, Harvard, Arlington Street, the Boston Common, Louisburg Square and the Athenaeum resonate with the audience. So does Gardner’s mental deterioration. The dignified writer can’t comprehend what’s happening to himself and becomes frustrated at his memory lapses or inability at times to perform routine tasks.
Actor Brian Casey is magnificent as Gardner Church, who, offstage, types away incessantly, working fruitlessly on a book about criticism and poetry. Phasing in and out of lucidity, he quotes Yates and passages from Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” as stacks of typed pages slip through his hands.
Watching Gardner pathetically lament his memory loss and confusion at his inexplicable actions is agonizing. Fanny tries desperately to care for him, sparking him with happy memories, or making games out of simple tasks, like placing his manuscript pages in a packing box. “You’re treating him like a child!” Mags cracks, until she, too, crumbles, facing the reality of her parents’ decline.
Hazel Grenham as Gardner’s supportive, patrician wife, Fanny, is outstanding. From the moment she musically cries out Gardner’s name in the opening scene to get him to stop typing and come see the designer hat she bought from the thrift shop for 85 cents, to the final touching scene, she runs a full spectrum of emotions. She tries to be sunshiny, yet she’s crest-fallen, defeated. “If I could, I’d put a bullet through my head, but who would take care of him?” she sighs.
She also exhibits her love and disappointment in Mags, carping at Mags’ eating habits, size, and clothing. During a moving conversation, Mags says Fanny habitually criticized her from childhood, especially the way she ate, oozing food between her teeth. Mags bitterly recalls being banned from the table for several months and the profound effect it had on her.
Like Mags, who tries to paint an elegant portrait of her parents in formal attire, playwright Tina Howe has penned a masterpiece that touches our souls.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two hour play, written by Tina Howe, directed by Janet Neely, appearing through June 4 at the Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St., Salem. Performances are Thursday-Saturday, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. Tickets, $22; seniors, $18; students, $12. Visit www.salemtheatre.com, the Box Office, e-mail email@example.com, or call 978-790-8546.