Painting Churches probably felt fresh when it appeared in 1983. There weren't many plays then that dealt with Alzheimer's and the demands it places on a family (although On Golden Pond was already out). Now, though, we've had 30 years of dementia stories and of baby boomers being guilt-tripped for their selfishness, for putting their careers ahead of their responsibilities to their parents. This play now has about as much resonance as a Lifetime Channel movie, if they made Lifetime Channel movies about the families of Poet Laureates.
I can see why this play has remained popular, for the usual reasons that community theaters pick up plays like this: small cast, meaty roles that actors like to play, single set, few technical demands, inexpensive costumes, the pedigree of being a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and appeal to an older audience, which fills the seats. The man sitting next to me said that I was probably the only person in the sold-out audience not on Social Security yet, and I think he was right.
Tina Howe's script has a few good scenes toward the end, but much of the first act is the usual mother-daughter clichés: "What have you done to your hair? Don't you think it's about time to get married? I never cared for your boyfriends. How come you can't find time to come visit us more than once a year?" And from the daughter's point of view: "You were always so rigid, so concerned with appearances. You never encouraged my abilities, and I do have abilities." That kind of stuff, which would be O.K. if only it were witty.
There is a fairly extended conversation about why Mags was banished from the dining room table for six months: She would squeeze her food out between her teeth and make patterns with it, which her mother just could not tolerate. The psychology professor sitting next to me explained that this represents the oral phase or the anal phase, I can't remember which, so obviously I'm missing something, but I just found it bizarre.
To be fair, there is some interesting discussion about the relationship between an artist and her subjects, especially in the case of portraiture. But there's a lot of palaver surrounding it.
The play held my interest at the beginning because I couldn't tell at first who was the one who was losing it, the father or the mother. But it soon becomes clear that it's Gardner, a poet so influential that Robert Frost credited him with leading the way. It's telling that now, when Gardner recites poetry from memory, it's not his own work, which he probably can't remember, but Yeats ("the golden apples of the sun") and Dickinson ("electric moccasin"I never could understand a lot of her stuff) and Gray's "Elegy" (how apt).
Gardner's decline is touching, of course, but the scene in which this still coherent if forgetful man devolves in a matter of seconds into a child making paper airplanes out of the pages of his beloved manuscript struck me as so false that I lost any good will I might have had toward the play. I did, however, enjoy the speech Fanny makes that summarizes every older generation's complaints about the younger one, and what the harsh future holds for the elderly. In this scene, at least, there's some universality to be extracted from a family that lives in a such a rarefied atmosphere compared to most of us.
The acting and directing and staging are, as is often the case, better than the material. Barbara Bock's set is realistic, and I like the fact that you can tell where pictures used to hang on the wall, but they're not there anymore. It's as if Gardner and Fanny's lives have already vanished. Lighting by Michael Girlamo and costumes by Carolyn Hogan are fine. A little touch like Gardner's getting the buttons wrong on his sweater shows care and intelligence on the part of the creative team.
Director Brian Hansen has an excellent cast to work with and he keeps the action, such as it is, moving along. Michelle Boehler does very good work, not only when speaking but also when simply observing her parents. Ray Orley is perfect for the role of Gardner, bringing dignity to a man whose mind is falling apart. If only he didn't have to play that paper airplane scene.
Becky Mayo is leaving Albuquerque (moving farther west) with what is most likely the best performance of her career. Fanny is not supposed to be a very sympathetic character, but Becky makes you really feel for her.
All in all, a very good production of a play that I am not that impressed with. However, I would not discourage anyone from seeing it. Live theater is almost always rewarding in some way or other.
Painting Churches by Tina Howe is being performed at the Adobe Theater in Albuquerque, 9813 N. Fourth St. NW, through July 13, 2014. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Info at www.adobetheater.org or 505-898-9222.