Psychic tension between adult children and their aging parents makes for relevant drama in any decade. So does the artistic urge to capture reality, and the tendency of stubborn reality to evade artistic capture. In that regard, the Keen Company’s Off Broadway revival of Painting Churches, Tina Howe’s critically esteemed portrait of an artist and her aging parents, is as relevant today as it was when the award-winning play premiered in 1983.
The playwright tells the story of Mags Church (Kate Turnbull), a young painter just launching a successful art career in New York, who returns to the Boston home of her aging parents with a dual mission: to help them pack up their house for their move to downsized, elderly living, and to paint their joint portrait for her important upcoming one-woman gallery show. Playing with the geometry of relationships among the three characters — high-born, eccentric Bostonian Fanny Church (Kathleen Chalfant), her Pulitzer-winning poet husband, Gardner (John Cunningham), and the couple’s independent and non-doting daughter — Howe produces her own dramatic painting: In certain light, Fanny, in her proper lady clothes and various outré thrift-shop hats, is a WASPy, overbearing society snob and tippler out of Updike or Cheever country, fussing around her dementia-addled husband and wounding her daughter with her apparent lack of interest or pride in the young woman’s work. (She shows much more interest in her daughter’s wardrobe and unmarried condition.) In another light, Fanny is a rather magnificent grandee, singlehandedly protecting her unraveling husband against the indignity of senility even as Mags is oblivious to the reality of her father’s deteriorating condition.
The architecture of Painting Churches is sturdy enough to withstand time. It’s the dialogue that shows its age, with Fanny nattering about a silver heirloom fetching ”a pretty penny,” with things being ”at sixes and sevens,” and with all Fanny’s country-club ”Yoo HOO!” vocal flutterings to refocus Gardner’s wandering attention. Howe likes to hand her characters speeches — with attendant lighting cues — whenever she wants to make Important Points about gaining perspective in life and in art. The characters, too, show the cracks in their construction — or maybe what we’re seeing is an interpretive asymmetry.
The commanding Chalfant, forever associated with her defining performances in Angels in America and Wit, gives Fanny a determined dignity with undertones of eccentricity, steeliness, and — most affectingly — hidden sadness. Cunningham, blessed with the handsome, silver-haired look of an Aging Literary Eminence (and cocktail-hour devotee), finds a flexible angle of poise between self-pride and awful bewilderment. But Kate Turnbull has the hardest time of it, unsure where to pitch her Mags as an artist and as an adult daughter whose return to her childhood home brings out the hurt little girl inside. In Turnbull’s oddly petulant, girlish interpretation, the prodigal artist we see is so self-involved and unperceptive about her own parents — either as people or as portrait subjects — that it’s difficult for an audience to understand why she’s so keen to paint them at all. Or why she’s considered so promising an artist.
It’s not difficult, though, to see why the elder Churches are so torn about leaving their Boston home. Beowulf Boritt’s clean, understated scenic design suggests the timelessness of Bostonian architectural elegance. And Keen Company director Carl Forsman moves the family around the room with equally graceful choreography. B-
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)