THE BASICS: Tina Howe’s Alzheimer’s-related family drama was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1984. O’Connell and Co. is doing a special limited engagement for Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. Performances continue through November 19th. Lucas Lloyd directs a cast of three. The show, with its single intermission, runs a little under two hours.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: From the playbill and theater website: “Gardner and Fanny Church are preparing to move out of their Beacon Hill house to their summer cottage on Cape Cod. Gardner, once a famous poet, is showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, as his wife Fanny valiantly tries to keep them both afloat. Their artist daughter, Mags, has come home to help them move. Mags, an artist on the verge of celebrity, hopes to at last paint their portrait, as well.”
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: Though they are billing this as a comedy, PAINTING CHURCHES is actually a dysfunctional family/“problem” drama leavened a bit with some wry humor.
Playwright Howe’s “light” opening lines, unsubtly delivered by Tina Rausa, are clunky in the extreme. I was awfully worried that we were going to get dinner theater, until the playwright settles into her dramatic groove. Things really come to a boil by the middle of Act II, when Ms. Rausa, in a searing tell-all, nails the basic family relationships. Think “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”! I do credit playwright Howe for incorporating snippets of great poetry (Gardner is supposedly writing a book of criticism), and providing her players with some lovely, descriptive language.
Things really come to a boil by the middle of Act II, when Ms. Rausa, in a searing tell-all, nails the basic family relationships.
Some of the evening’s most interesting content relates to Mags the (problem) child, and helps explain her virtual absence from the family as an adult. It’s a shame that the Mags character is so underdeveloped; this really lessens what is essentially an interesting dysfunctional family drama. Instead, Ms. Howe concentrates on the “problem drama” stuff–the plight of poor, unraveling Gardner, and the strained-to-nearly-the-breaking point relationship between husband and wife. That’s very important, of course, but I ended up feeling a little cheated, nonetheless.
Jack Horohoe, a not-so-familiar face on WNY stages, gives a nice, sensitive rendering of the gentle, dreamy, “lost lamb” poet, Gardner. His quiet moments of confusion seemed to ring quite true.
Tina Rausa, as the once (long ago) enraptured, now embittered Fanny has the plum role here. She certainly gets some laughs with her many caustic barbs, but, sadly, does nothing to engender audience sympathy. We understand that she is in pain, but since all we get is her immense anger and frustration, it is difficult to really feel for her. A quivery lip, some choked back tears, a little trembly vulnerability might have worked wonders here…
Sara Kow-Falcone gives a good, solid performance as the artist daughter. Alienated from childhood, but still amenable to fence-mending, we clearly feel her childlike enthusiasm for her art, and her unquenched desire for parental approval and love. We also get a nice sense of the gentle, poetic nature that she seems to have inherited from her father, and is their unspoken bond.
The direction and production are both quite capable, although the issue of accents does not appear to have been addressed. Neither Ms. Rausa nor Ms. Kow-Falcone appear to be using one, while Mr. Horohoe slips into what can only be described as a Maine accent every now and then. Hmmm.
IN SUM: A pretty successful, timely production of an intriguing but less than totally satisfying play. Don’t go in expecting a comedy. I doubt that this will bowl you over, but you could certainly do a lot worse!
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!