25 June 2011: Howe, Painting Churches

New Century Theatre, performing in Theatre 14, Mendenhall Performance Center, Smith College. Dir. by Keith Langsdale

A three-character, one set play. The elderly Churches are packing up for a move from their old Beacon Hill, Boston home to Cotuit, on the south shore. Fanny and Gardner are expecting their daughter, Margaret, called Mags, a professional artist, to help them pack up. The title initially refers to the agreement Mags has extracted from her parents that they allow her to paint a double portrait of them. The portrait commences about half-way through and is finished in the course of the action, during which we come to understand that each of the elder Churches is deeply flawed and yet deeply dependent on one another, and come to understand also that the daughter’s childhood and indeed her adulthood as well have been gravely problematized by the lack of emotional understanding provided by her parents during her childhood and adolescence.

In a series of scenes, moving ever closer to the day and hour of departure, the history of Mags’s childhood and adolescence is revealed, partly for the better, but mostly for the worse, even as we discover more about Gardner’s illustrious career as a poet. She was banished from the dinner table for six months for playing with her food — by pushing it through her teeth onto the plate, making colorful patterns that utterly fascinated her but which were considered totally unacceptable by her parents, especially her mother. We’re made to understand that these impulses are proto-artistic, as Mags herself has come to view them, and it is because of these impulses that she has eventually set herself on the road toward painterly artistry. Imprisoned in her room, she continues playing with her food but also begins to create shapes out of crayons that have melted on a hot radiator. When her parents discover this — she reminds them of something they apparently have completely forgotten about — they are completely uncomprehending. And it is this lack of comprehension, lack of emotional rapport, that clarifies and in fact shapes the fraught emotional contours of the triadic relationship as it continues to the present day.

One might say that the playwright does not take sides, and it is true that what she reveals here is a deeply bonded couple who ironically have no time, no sympathetic understanding, for the daughter who needs their love and support so much, even while describing a daughter who is herself a difficult, over-sensitive person. And for seemingly good reasons. Mags has kept herself away from these distant parents, reifying that distance to such a degree that she has not kept up with their lives, hardly visiting them as often as once a year. Gardner Church is a Pulitzer-prize-winning poet who holds vast amounts of poetic text in his head, of his own and others, from Keats and Shelley to Dickinson, Yeats, and Frost, and he can recite it well enough to leave his auditors spellbound. But he is very old now, suffering from dementia, and his compulsive writing has become nearly nonsense, although he calls it criticism. We hear his typewriter constantly chattering away, as Fanny, gaunt and determined, attempts to interrupt him to enlist his help in packing or with some other pressing matter. But he does not stay tuned to her for long, and the sheaves of manuscripts that he carries into the living room from his study escape his grasp and are scattered about the room. Meanwhile, Fanny carries large armloads of books from the study into the room and deposits them on the floor, sorted by color and thus imposing on them an order that is, as Gardner exasperatedly explains to her, quite meaningless. Undaunted and uncomprehending, she picks them up and drops them into the waiting boxes.

Mags sees her mother’s every effort, but particularly her attempts to rein in Gardner’s mental wanderings, as open cruelty, and tells her so. Fanny for her part criticizes Mags for having stayed away for so long that she cannot see how problematic Gardner’s mental state is. He is incontinent, even, she explains, and has to wear diapers. He does not take her out any more, and she is reduced to visiting thrift shops for the stylish hats she prizes (she paid all of eighty-five cents for the one she is modeling in the reflective back of a silver tray as the play begins) and for dressing gowns for Gardner, who absent-mindedly wears them over his clothes. He is in a sad state, in fact, though his long-term memory seems to be intact and he can remember delightful seaside episodes of family vacations, which his considerably verbal powers can make evocative in the re-telling.

For her part, Mags bitterly recalls and tells the story of her imprisonment in her room, where against all expectations her artistic ability began to surface. Toward the end of one scene, she continues this story and, almost beside herself, insists in an ever more strident voice that she discovered that she had — that she has — deep ability, very deep ability, very very deep ability. It is an exit line, and a curtain line, and so it registers so strongly that we are left, even more than the effect of her father’s poetic recitations on us, speechless. (Even while a part of us considers that such strong curtain lines are uncomfortably reminiscent of the well-made play of Dumas fils and Scribe that populated French and English stages in an age from which we thought we had recovered.)

By and large, however, Tina Howe does not depend on the coup de théâtre for her effects. Instead, her writing is more lapidary, carefully laid out in the concrete minutiae of such points as whether Mags will join her parents in another Dubonnet (she is dead set against it, but Fanny leans hard on her to accept it, accusing Mags of not wanting to be companionable and leaving her lonely and alone; and inevitably, guilt stricken, Mags caves in and accepts it). In these ways, Howe develops the intricacies of character that, repeated and varied, like variations on a theme, show us three complex characters. They include a father who, though an artist himself, is blind to and seemingly uncaring of his daughter’s artistic talent; a mother who seems fundamentally selfish and incapable of treating her daughter with any considerable degree of sympathetic interest, while her loyalty to her husband is on view at almost every moment and her compulsion to care for him in his declining years is given priority in her life before anything else; and a daughter who has abandoned the upper-crust, self-centered life of Beacon Hill for the New York art scene, where her paintings are compared to those of David Hockney and other contemporary masters, but whose success she cannot persuade her preoccupied parents to credit as something that matters in any important way.

It is, in short, not a propitious homecoming. Each character, finally, exists in a world where she or he is at the center, like a narcissistic subject reflected in a mirror, but where others present themselves in diminished, only half-intelligible ways. These are the three subjects that Tina Howe, herself a characterological painter of considerable skill and insight, has painted in this play. And so the title must be taken in this extra, metatheatrical dimension as well. Mags’s intention to paint her parents’ portrait is, we begin to think, ill advised. Although she stays up all night, this last night of her visit, to complete it, and produces a remarkably finished double characterization — which we the audience do not see — she realizes that what has brought her to Beacon Hill has been something of a fool’s errand. Her parents’ reactions to the completed double portrait are quite different. Fanny’s is much more literal about how it represents what she looks like and almost rejecting it for being so unflattering. Gardner’s is more superficially accepting, but in the end it is no more comprehending than Fanny’s. Each character is locked in herself or himself, even while remaining connected with the other two in important ways. Tina Howe has set herself the painterly task of representing this trio of persons in a fair, comprehensible, and objective way, capturing as much of the intimacy of the subject and the subject’s way of seeing self and world, but also much of the ineffectuality of each character’s struggle to be heard and understood by the others — as much as the medium itself will allow.

Painting Churches, looked at in this metatheatrical way, takes on a richness and produces an appeal that is uncommon among contemporary plays. And it must be said that Howe’s objectivity in presenting each of her characters without any notable bias turns out to be not inconsistent with a larger sympathy on her part in the plight of any such three persons faced with the need to deal with the ineluctable changes that life imposes.

The result is a moving depiction of their struggle against formidable odds. As if to free them from it, if only for a moment, Howe writes a very last scene that raises the play to a higher level of dramatic discourse and grants us a larger perspective. The cut-out scenery upstage, representing the walls and windows of the Church’s living room, is magically drawn away, and instead of exiting off stage right to the waiting transportation that will drop off Mags at South Station and take Fanny and Gardner on to their new quarters in Cotuit, the upstage area lights up behind some gossamer scrim, revealing a night sky, while the downstage floor, now stripped of its furnishings and packing boxes, goes dark; and Fanny and Gardner, who have begun a dance reminiscent of earlier pleasures, now dance offstage left and then reappear upstage, behind the scrim, still dancing. The music they are dancing to, we surmise, must be the music of time. Mags, recognizing the special moment, sits down cross-legged on the bare floor, facing upstage, and watches. As the music reaches the end of a phrase, suddenly it stops. Fanny and Gardner stop, in the same moment, and are held suspended in it, before the lights go suddenly dark.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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