Painting Churches

Starting this Friday and Saturday, March 11 and 12, the Waterworks Players present Tina Howe’s play Painting Churches, a theatre experience you do not want to miss. In this comedy-drama, Howe skillfully weaves a tale we can all relate to: the story of a family facing the inevitable challenges and changes brought on by aging. Tina Howe is an accomplished American playwright, currently Playwright in Residence at Hunter College in New York. She has written numerous plays including Coastal Disturbances, which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 1987. Howe won an Obie for Distinguished Playwriting in 1983, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1984, and in 1993 she won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature. She was also awarded the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play in 1998.

One of Howe’s best known works, Painting Churches has been well received by both critics and theater-goers. And once you have seen this play, you will understand why it is so popular. There are only three characters in the drama: Gardner Church, a poet at the end of his career, his wife Fanny and their daughter Mags, an art teacher, who is just beginning to experience professional success as a portrait painter. The story centers on Fanny and Gardner’s move to a smaller home, an event for which Mags has finally come home after more than a year spent without visiting her parents. While home, Mags tells her parents that she wants to paint a portrait of them, although getting her parents to actually sit for the portrait is more complicated than she thought it would be. It is through the dual lens of the family’s packing up and Mags’ insistence that the portrait be painted that we see a story powerfully told. While Gardner’s increasing forgetfulness is a central and important theme, this story is not just about memory loss and aging parents. It is also a story about a controlling mother who pulls everyone into her reality and a daughter struggling to find and embrace her identity. This is a story about the fragility and strength of family relations, of family members with competing memories of the same event and the powerful ways in which those memories shape the family dynamic.  Painting Churches is essentially a love story (husband-wife, mother-daughter, father-child), and this Waterworks Players production, under the direction of Dudley Sauve, is as unforgettable as it is unconventional.

The limited number of characters in Painting Churches combines with the simplicity of the play’s structure (there are only two acts), allowing for a depth of character development and an on-stage intimacy that make this story lifelike and unforgettable. Ed Kinman skillfully takes on the role of the aging father-poet and from the moment he walks on stage, he is Gardner Church, a lovable mix of bumbling poetic brilliance, a source of both pride and irritation for his wife Fanny. Fanny is played by Val Wagoner, who adeptly interprets the central role of the play, bringing a stage presence that belies her petite frame and makes her character the force of nature she is intended to be. Mags, played by Leigh Lunsford, is an expertly subtle character who is no less powerful in engaging the audience and portraying a daughter caught between two transitions, her own and that of her aging parents. Lunsford’s quiet and effective interpretation of Mags, with her growing concern and dismay over the changes in her parents’ relationship, greatly aids in the powerful eruption of the play’s climax, a climax that is quietly followed by a final scene, so gentle and so portrait-like, that it will replay itself in your memory many times.

The Waterworks Players production of Painting Churches is a must-see and will play at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, March 11 and 12. You may also see it at 8 p.m. next Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased in advance by calling (434) 392-3452 or online at www.waterworksplayers.org.