Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham
in Painting Churches
(© Carol Rosegg)
Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham
in Painting Churches
(© Carol Rosegg)
It's easy to assume the better written a play, the less likely it can be weakened in production. That proves not to be the case with Tina Howe's exquisite, delicate and autobiographically-inspired Painting Churches, now being given a surprisingly undelicate revival by the Keen Company at Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre.

The Howe stand-in is Mags (Kate Turnbull), a painter who returns to her beautiful Boston home (nicely designed by Beowulf Boritt) after a lengthy absence to prepare a portrait of her aging father Gardner Church (John Cunningham), a world-famous poet, and mother Fanny (Kathleen Chalfant) in her neo-Impressionistic style marked by brilliant effects of light.

She wants the result for a show she's been offered by an influential New York City gallery, but all Mags encounters in her determination to get her pater and mater to sit still long enough for the double portrait to emerge is resistance.

Their reluctance stems from her father's slow slide into senility -- he's preoccupied writing an analytic book on poetry he doesn't realize is shaping up as gibberish -- and from her mother's mostly unspoken and passive-aggressive disapproval of painting as her daughter's dedicated, increasingly successful career.

There's also the overriding issue that the couple has just days to move out of their home and relocate to their much-smaller country cottage, a change made necessary by the couple's dwindling finances and Gardner's mental instability. Eventually, however, Mags reaches her goal, even as she comes to an understanding of the elder Churches' changing yet enduring romantic chemistry and the wages of aging.

Painting the Churches with words rather than brushstrokes, Howe uses deft verbal strokes to shed figurative light on Gardner and Fanny. It's a hallmark of Howe's dramatizing skills and also underlies her brand of sly humor. The eccentricities Gardner and Fanny exhibit are subtle, and any attempt to paint them on stage with what might be considered broad brushstrokes is a mistake.

Unfortunately, under Carl Forsman's direction, Chalfant, Cunningham, and Turnbull play Fanny, Gardner, and Mags during much of the first act as if they're starring in a deranged sitcom. It's not until Fanny -- fed up with Mags' superficial view of the parents' daily poses -- reads her single-minded daughter the riot act that Chalfant takes full command of the role and then follows through to the end.

Cunningham has several moments during which he captures the flickering embers of a man's dissolving mind -- one is his mesmerizing delivery of William Butler Yeats' "Song of Wandering Aengus" -- but he doesn't connect the dots throughout. Turnbull appears to see Mags as an overgrown teen throwing a tantrum, but there's more to the character than that.