Theatre du Jour

at Heartland Cafe Studio Theatre

One of the hardest things for a writer is to present an honest picture of his or her own family: there’s a natural tendency to skew facts in order to show oneself in the best possible light. Too often audiences are forced to sit through the self-justifying ravings of artists displaying their misery and explaining that their crazy parents made them that way.

In Tina Howe’s Painting Churches, Soho artist Margaret Church comes back to the family home in New England for the last time before her parents move out. She wants to paint a portrait of them for her first solo exhibition, and by doing so come to terms with her own neuroses by capturing her vision of her batty parents on canvas. Margaret seems to think that by painting her parents she’ll be able to escape the powerful influence their high standards still wield over her, to move out of their shadow and into her own life. The great thing about being a portrait painter, she tells us, is that the subjects are exposed while the painter remains hidden.

Tina Howe is not that naive: in her play she intentionally exposes the artist along with the subjects. Although Howe clearly identifies with Margaret, she’s less concerned with blaming the parents for all their child’s problems. Her understanding of the artist’s contradictory needs–establishing independence and garnering approval–creates a very profound and moving play. Painting Churches does have sequences that seem unnecessarily slanted toward Margaret’s point of view, but there’s enough honesty in Howe’s depiction of parent-child relations to compensate for her occasional stacking of the deck.

Our view of Margaret’s parents, Fanny and Gardner, is filtered through Margaret, and our reaction to them matches hers. At first they are broad cartoons who speak in comic dialogue actually printed in capital letters in the script. Fanny is a loony thrift-shop scavenger, the kind of mom who dips into the booze and embarrasses you at cocktail parties. Gardner is a once-brilliant writer drifting into senility as he labors futilely on a work of literary criticism no publisher will ever want. Fanny scolds and belittles her husband because she’s dissatisfied with the way her own life is turning out.

When Margaret berates her parents for how they tried to control her as a child, we see them not as lovable kooks but inept failures. Then resentment turns to pity when we learn of Gardner’s medical problems and how difficult it is for Fanny to cope with him. By the end, as Gardner and Fanny pack their things to move out of the family house and Margaret finishes her portrait, we’re encouraged–with Margaret–to appreciate them despite their faults.

My only quibble with Howe’s excellently written play is that by changing Fanny and Gardner to correspond with Margaret’s changing images of them she doesn’t allow the audience to interpret the Churches for themselves. Howe successfully depicts the way a portrait painter interprets and reinterprets her subjects, but a play should not be like a painting. Because we’re allowed to see Fanny and Gardner only through Margaret’s eyes, Howe’s characters seem more like sketches than three-dimensional humans. Howe tells us everything about how Margaret sees her parents and why she reacts to them as she does, but very little about Fanny and Gardner. Fanny in particular remains more caricature than character, shouting and prancing about like the exaggerated figment of an ashamed child’s imagination.

Not surprisingly, Denise Meehan’s intelligent and crisply directed production for Theatre du Jour offers performances whose effectiveness depends on how completely the part has been written. Margaret Church is a deep and subtly written role, and Elizabeth Rich gives a near perfect performance, always believable, never out of character. Dennis Beaty offers a clever, sympathetic portrayal of Gardner, maintaining a quiet dignity as the aging writer’s mental powers begin to fail him. As the most problematic character, Fanny, Debra Rodkin delivers a problematic performance, rushing and garbling some lines–though in the second act, when Howe allows the character some moments more rooted in reality, Rodkin makes some moving speeches. If the roles of Gardner and Fanny had been written a little more honestly, Theatre du Jour might have come up with a truly superb production instead of a very good one.