In the play, Margaret, a young artist (here played by Kate Turnbull), returns to her parents gracious Boston townhouse determined to paint their portrait and finally win their approval. But Fanny and Gardner Church (played by Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham) have their own needs -- dealing with the decline in their lives as age and finances force them from their Brahmin world to a small cottage on Cape Cod. Soon, old grievances give way to fresh understandings, with Howe's zany sense of comedy lighting the way.
"The characters are very close to the household I grew up in, with echoes of the drama and the eccentricities I heard constantly growing up," says Howe, whose father was journalist Quincy Howe, who broadcast the evening news for years on CBS radio and moderated the final Kennedy/Nixon debate. "I grew up hearing the news in my father's voice. I knew what it felt like to grow up with a famous father."
Howe admits writing the play allowed her in part to come to terms with the feelings of inadequacy and need for attention that marked her early life, but the play's ending is far removed from her parents' real-life leave-taking.
"The play is a wish, a fantasy," she says. "We all know life does not end that way. My parents' ending was much more harrowing. I was painting a portrait of how we wish to see our parents at the end of life. That's why audiences have loved it. It gives them a beautiful alternative, which I think is the function of theater. I see Fanny and Gardner as tremendously brave and valiant. Fanny is aware Gardner is losing it, but she soldiers on and creates an illusion that everything is all right. Their valor gets me. That's very New England. They're not into self-pity." Indeed, she thinks of her plays' endings as epiphanies. "I believe in transformation. All my plays end with characters who are transformed and rise to a new level."
Her plays, notably her Pulitzer-Prize nominated work Pride's Crossing, also offer a decidedly female point of view, from The Nest, which deals with husband hunting, to Birth and After Birth's portrayal of frazzled young motherhood, menopause in Approaching Zanzibar, and old age in Chasing Manet.
So, while Howe is pleased that Painting Churches is one of three major revivals of the work of women playwrights currently on stage, along with Margaret Edson's Wit and Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, for her, it's still too few. "Women's work is still not at the top of artistic directors' lists, yet we're the ones buying the tickets."
Next up, Howe is shopping around her latest work, which she will identify only as "apocalyptic play set on ocean liner," and is working on a musical and a TV pilot, the details of which she declines to disclose. And she is passionate about developing new writers in her role as playwright in residence at Hunter College's MFA program. "I'm a hopeless optimist," she says. "It's so easy to go to the dark side, weeping and tearing of flesh. It's much harder to find grace. That's always my goal."