Gardner and Fanny Church (Cunningham and Chalfant, respectively) have reached that point in their life where the chief topics of conversation are: who amongst their friends are dead; who's still alive; who's dealing with what disease; and is it cocktail time yet. Gardner is a formerly successful writer and poet, but since the onset of dementia hasn't been able to write anything of substance for some time; and not for lack of trying. As the curtain goes up we hear the tap, tap, tapping of an old typewriter offstage. He and Fanny are stuck together in a large rambling house that they can no longer afford and in which Fanny can’t keep a constant eye on the failing Gardner. They’re packing up and moving from Beacon Hill in Boston to their cottage on Cape Cod.
For the first couple of minutes, Fanny is talking to herself alone onstage. Occasionally she will make it a point to call out to Gardner in a voice like a fog horn, it starts high and ends low. This one-sided conversation doesn't feel entirely natural. During this initial scene it feels as though Ms. Chalfant is talking directly to the audience rather than having a conversation with herself, like she has broken the fourth wall without intending to and without recognizing it. Don’t misunderstand me, Ms. Chalfant gives a terrific performance, especially during quieter moments when you really understand what Fanny’s life has become. You understand why she would find it funny that her husband has come into the room with urine running down his tux pant leg. She has gotten to the point where she laughs so she won’t cry. She’s at the end of her rope and it is then that Ms. Chalfant’s performance becomes glorious in its simplicity and honesty.
As Gardner, Mr. Cunningham delivers a fine performance. He is lovable and romantic; his love for his wife and daughter are obvious. Cunningham perfectly handles the duality of complete clarity one moment (reciting the poetry of Yates from memory) to complete loss of consciousness the next (wandering around looking for his manuscript, which is in his hand.)
Their daughter Mags (Turnbull) has arrived home to help them pack. At the same time she has finally gotten her parents to agree to sit for her so she can paint their portrait. She is a successful painter who has just gotten her first solo show at a very prestigious gallery; she also teaches painting. But Mags is a mess. Ms. Turnbull doesn’t portray her as the confident young woman you expect this artist to be. In her youth Mags had an eating disorder. Ms. Turnbull has a terrific scene where she describes coming to terms with her creative self and how it was in response to her food anxiety. As a child she couldn't swallow her food and she would be sent to her room to eat. She would flush the food and distract herself by melting crayons on the radiator until it was a giant monument to all the cast-off food she ultimately flushed down the toilet.
In the second act Ms. Turnbull has a breakdown as she reveals her parents portrait to them. I have to call out director Carl Forsman here. He has directed Ms. Turnbull to completely upstage a wonderful moment where the parents come to their own appreciation of what their daughter has created. When their initial response is not completely ecstatic, Ms. Turnbull has a meltdown, pacing and hyperventilating. She so completely steals focus in this scene to the point that we don't get to enjoy the moment her parents discover what they do love about their portrait. This breakdown is overdone by a country mile.
The scenic design by Beowulf Boritt effectively recreates the Churches' colonial home. The set is minimal, which is important considering the size of the stage. At the same time he achieves a sense of depth to the stage through the use of crown molding suspended from the fly space with the corner of the room directly up-center creating a vanishing point. Josh Bradford's lighting beautifully creates various times of day as the light comes flooding through the large casement windows.
All-in-all the Keen Company production of Painting Churches is uneven but it still bears a professional sheen which I have come to expect from the Keen Company. It does have some delightful moments, I particularly liked when Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Chalfant are trying to figure out what pose to strike for their portrait. They strike famous poses like the pitchfork wielding farm couple in American Gothic and Adam and God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, God bestowing knowledge to man with the touch of a finger. Tina Howe’s play is very simple, it doesn’t delve too terribly deeply into the familial issues but it does drive home the effect of Alzheimer’s and dementia on a care-giver, a subject on which I wish I knew less.