Halsted Theatre Centre

Whenever she wasn’t standing in front of the piano, singing one of the 17 songs that make up Pictures in the Hall, Maureen Silliman would sit alongside it, apparently rapt, watching her partner perform. This is normal stage etiquette, of course: don’t just sit there–give focus. But when you consider that her partner, Craig Carnelia, is also her husband, and that he wrote the 17 songs–and that the songs themselves are so perfectly sweet–it seems likely that Silliman’s focus was more than merely professional. As I watched her watching him, I thought, She must think he’s wonderful.

Whether or not that’s what she actually thought isn’t the point. The point is that Pictures in the Hall invites us to imagine thoughts like that. Gently loving, gently anguished, gently funny, or gently hokey, Carnelia’s songs are almost always about love and allegiance–about passing time in the presence of other people. Or at least–as in the case of a tune involving a woman and her avocado tree–other living things. Pictures in the Hall considers that part of us formed when nature left off and nurture kicked in.

Often, probably too often, this theme gets expressed as nostalgia. And rather pat nostalgia, at that. There’s less Proustian reverie here than Wonder Years wistfulness. The first song, in fact, all too precisely echoes a bit I actually saw on The Wonder Years, where little Kevin Arnold whacks a game-winning, ninth- inning homer.

Other songs tap thirtysomething cliches about moving into that crummy first apartment, dividing up the household after that first divorce, finding out that your parents were once young, and watching your high school dreams fade. A true product of the TV generation, Pictures in the Hall makes you nostalgic for the present.

Even so, I never wanted to turn it off. However trite and self-evident Carnelia’s songs became at times, they were always deeply felt and articulately expressed, with a powerful sense of drama. They radiated good heart and strong intelligence.

And every so often, something more. Interestingly, Carnelia’s finest pieces are those that take him the farthest away from his own persona. His best-known song, “Just a Housewife,” delicately but unfalteringly captures the angry confusion of a woman who finds her life’s work denigrated as trivial. “The Mason” gets at the pride of a certain kind of work. And for all its obviousness, “Diary of a Homecoming Queen” hints at the pain of failing to live up to early expectations.

Then there’s his masterpiece, “The Last 40 Years,” in which an old black woman says “thank-you and good-bye” to her dead husband. Very simply, very clearly, and entirely without condescension, stereotyping, or the stench of the anthropological, Carnelia shows us more than what it is to pass time in the presence of other people: he shows us what it is for a particular woman to have passed time in the presence of a particular man.

Unfortunately, there’s no chance of your seeing what I mean. Pictures closed on Sunday, after just a four-day run. I don’t know why. This review isn’t so much a review, therefore, as a “thank-you and good-bye” to Carnelia and Silliman. They may be hopelessly sentimental, but they gave me a genuinely pleasant, pleasantly genuine hour.