“At first glance,” the opening stage direction of Tina Howe’s Painting Churches (Theatre Row) tells us, the living room of the Church family’s townhouse on Beacon Hill “looks like any discreet Boston interior, but on closer scrutiny one notices a certain flamboyance.” Almost impossible to duplicate in three-dimensional reality—how do you conceal flamboyance behind discretion?—this piece of literary wishful thinking provides a handy key to the writing style of Howe’s delightful, disturbing, and ultimately moving 1983 play. It also supplies a useful defense of director Carl Forsman’s revival for Keen Company, which has been unjustly ragged on for providing almost exactly what Howe seems to desire.
A last remnant of the old-money, socially elite WASP families that used to be Beacon Hill’s principal inhabitants, Howe’s Churches are an artistic clan. Gardner Church (John Cunningham) is an aging poet, now going dotty, whose eminence is suggested by a library that includes gifts from Robert Frost and Andre Malraux. His wife, Fanny (Kathleen Chalfant), long used to running the household and serving as her husband’s real-world anchor, is easily recognizable as the type of upper-class woman whose own artistic instincts, uxoriously suppressed, find fruition in her consciousness of clothes and furnishings. Sharp-eyed and even sharper-tongued, Fanny also functions, with supportive intent, as a kind of critical nemesis to both her husband and their daughter, Mags (Kate Turnbull), an aspiring painter, now living in New York, about to have her breakout solo show.
Less discreet than the interior Howe requests, the Churches at first glance appear to be an affectionate, adorably eccentric family. But closer scrutiny, for which the action gives ample opportunity, supplies darker underlying substance. Both Church parents are, in their differing ways, quite mad, and Mags, who has apparently had some breakdowns and spells of confinement in a “nuthouse,” is a deeply traumatized child, struggling to find her way back to a more nourishing bond with her crazy parents, from whom she has been keeping her distance. Between her father’s literary celebrity and her mother’s constant, barely concealed machine-gunning of everything she might take pride in, Mags has clearly had an extremely rough time growing up.
Her homecoming, which starts the play, combines an effort at reconciliation with a retributive punishment. No longer able to afford their Beacon Hill townhouse, the elder Churches are selling it and settling year-round to their seaside cottage (as proper Bostonians, they have a seaside cottage) in the Cape Cod town of Cotuit. Summoned to help them empty out the townhouse, Mags chooses that week as the optimal time to paint a portrait of her parents. This neatly combines the stress of moving and the pain of closure with the prolonged agony of holding still while posing. Mags’s expertise in portraiture, a genre so outmoded it suddenly seems fresh to her art-world contemporaries, adds another layer of ironies: It’s her personal revision to her parents’ quaint lifestyle, so archaic that it might strike newcomers as fresh.
During the increasingly traumatic alternating processes of packing and posing, the family’s horrific condition becomes clear. We learn the litany of Mags’s youthful humiliations, the extent of Gardner’s encroaching senility, the emotional chaos wrought by Fanny’s schizoid shifts of tenderness and high-handed domineering. As Howe unfolds it all, she also reveals how much her writing, like her characters, resembles that opening stage direction: Under a discreet, seemingly naturalistic surface lurks the flamboyance of a highly American cartoon Absurdism, half Looney Tunes and half Ionesco, always ready to turn a mild reminiscence into ribbons of gaudily insane slapstick. The approach resembles John Guare’s, but his comic flights tend to veer off into the philosophic, while Howe’s get entangled with real objects in purely Chaplinesque or Keatonish abstraction. (This side of Howe’s work is always summed up for me by the memory of Dianne Wiest, in Howe’s The Art of Dining, helplessly fishing her eyeglasses out of the soup.)
As with Guare, the stylistic indeterminacy poses a challenge for performers: Exactly how “real” should these characters seem? Unlike the 1983 cast, each member of which twinkled in a galaxy of his or her own, Forsman’s trio answers the question with handsome teamwork, each having one foot firmly anchored in reality, yet each seeming capable of floating off at any moment into the shadow area where sanity becomes wholly unhinged. The only directorial lapse is the between-scenes use of artsy indie-movie-style music; the pre-show Chopin is perfect for these touchingly disoriented, comically romantic leftovers from the past.