REVIEW: ‘Painting Chuches’ depicts fading ties with broad palette

‘Painting Churches’/Walking the dog Theater with The Actors’ Ensemble/ Spencertown Academy

FOR “PAINTING CHURCHES”, gifted director David Anderson once again teams up with Actors’ Ensemble founders Fern Sloan and Ted Pugh. It’s a meeting of some very special theater talents.

In Act I, portrait painter Mags comes home to paint her aging parents and to help them move out of the family home in Boston. Fanny and Gardner Church have led successful lives, touched with a bit of fame, poetry, good silver, and attendant social perks; but now financial worries and the ravages of age require change.

The act moves along at a deceptively serene pace, occasionally allowing Fanny Church to ride her mercury from cranky, complaining witch to beautiful, loving spouse, and back again. She is deeply frightened by the slow loss of a brilliant husband to dementia. Looking toward the end-game, she is both irritated and terrified. In Sloan’s hands, Fanny’s vivacious moments seem both a lifelong part of her personality and a desperate cover for dread. Sloan is thrilling.

It is clear that the Churches’ profound “coupleness” has always left their daughter outside of their small, warm circle — not from any intentional cruelty, but from some inexplicable unawareness.

While daughter Mags (played by Sandra Struthers Clerc) brings the news of her budding success to her parents, they pointedly turn their attentions to the serious business of munching saltines, and they mock her desire to paint their portrait with silly enactments of famous poses, from Grant Wood’s American Gothic to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. (“You should be God,” quips Fanny.) They withhold respect, and Mags cannot understand. If that is not enough, Fanny chides something like, “No woman of breeding becomes a professional artist.”

Struthers Clerc’s youth — or youthful quality — makes Mags seem more like the Churches’ granddaughter than their daughter, and this fact sabotages her tale of childhood food disgorgement and crayons melting on the radiator, effective indications of pain and art that end in the daughter’s wail: “I have abilities! I have abilities!” This monologue should be devastating or perhaps very funny, and it isn’t.

Between each scene, a Chopin waltz, played by Gili Melamed-Lev, comes from the back of the hall. The waltzes are specified by the script, though it is tempting to think they were originally added simply to cover long scene changes. In this case, a cued listener should close her eyes to avoid the visual distraction of shadowy young men on stage dealing with boxes — so to cogitate about which key, tempo, or amount of chromaticism relates to what in the play. Anyway, it’s enough to make one long for the old-fashioned convention of theater curtains.

Elizabeth Frishkoff’s costuming of the elder Churches is excellent, clarifying the characters’ beauty, class and psychological place. Perhaps Mags’ clothing upon her first entrance suggests less gravitas than the character deserves.

The aging rosy-beige walls of Wendy Frost’s set seem Boston-right, although the line drawings for wainscoting are questionable, and the room’s objects are less than convincing. Seeing the set slowly denuded as the play progresses is a satisfying, if predictable playwright’s device.

Act II explodes, but not until after Pugh unwinds some breathtaking recitations of poetry: Yeats, Dickinson and Gardner’s beloved Frost. On this night, when the actor recited, the theater became uncannily still, as if everyone took in the air and forgot to exhale. Altogether, Pugh’s work simply was Gardner — he was the flashes of genius and old-time charm; he was the terrible innocence of the man’s senility; he was Gardner’s conventional goodness and love of a daughter. Pugh’s performance is simple, a tour de force with the “force” too unforced to admit to its name. Maybe that is why his Act II rage is so terrifying, so ready to unleash his wife’s cruelty-verging-on-insanity, so right for a prelude to the play’s end.

It is probably unfair to ask a too-young actress to realize Mags’ evolution amid the Sloan/Pugh torrent. Struthers Clerc just doesn’t quite make it happen. However, late in the play, she and Pugh recreate a nice father-daughter memory that brings her to one of life’s most poignant realizations: “We would never be like that again.”

The portrait is finished; and Fanny and Gardner ride the mercury once again to allow playwright Tina Howe a stopping place.

I urge you to see Painting Churches. The run has been extended through December 4.

Tickets: or 1-800-838-3006. Reservations for Season Members: 518 755-1716.


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