Painting Churches by Tina Howe Directed by David Anderson
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Fern Sloan, Ted Pugh and Sandra Struthers Clerc; photo: Daniel Region
"It’s not the color of the book that distinguishes it."
Sixty-ish Fanny Church is the caregiver to her seventy-ish husband Gardner. Fanny is a Sedgwick by birth, giving her character a strange relevance to the Berkshires where Sedgwicks have been a predominant family in the Stockbridge area for centuries. Gardner is suffering from attention deficit disorder, an ailment shared by his daughter "Mags." As you can tell from the characters’ names they are a family from the top drawer, from Beacon Hill, Boston in fact. Gardner is a poet and a scholar, a man who has always amused and titillated his family and friends with his charm and wit. These elements are still in play as he and Fanny prepare to leave their Boston home for a summer cottage they own, this time not for a holiday, for good.
Fanny and Gar, in the current production at the Spencertown Academy, a product of Walking the Dog Theater of Hudson, NY, are played by Fern Sloan and Ted Pugh. You have two choices in how you regard them: they are either too old for these roles or they are simply brilliant in them. Although I think they may be too old, they are definitely brilliant and that is how I prefer to view them for this review. Sloan walks like a much older woman, she talks and gestures and even smiles like a woman much older than Fanny, and yet she is just the right age considering the toll that Fanny’s new role in the relationship has taken. Her husband, in this 1983 play, is suffering from what we now know to be Alzheimer’s Disease and without meaning to the syndrome is dominating Fanny’s life, her decisions and her attitude. These things definitely do take away the years, the energy, the very sap of life.
Sloan is superb in this emotional roller-coaster role. She spends nearly one quarter of the play talking to herself, to the walls, to furniture and to bric-a-brac. She does this with such a clear lack of need for response that it is almost as though she herself is the victim of the ailment that is removing her husband from her grasp. She wears once fashionable clothing like a high society model at a fund-raiser fashion show. She manhandles her husband with such a seductive freshness that she gives the impression of being a coquette of fifteen. Her verbal abuse of her daughter is handled with a delicious, almost mist–sprayed and hazy sweetness that you want to reach out and slap her for doing so. As the incipient emotional center of this dysfunctional family she is the one you watch.
That is not easy considering the considerable charms of Ted Pugh as her husband. He plays the intensity of Gar’s interest in poetry and in his own analysis of poetry with a delicacy equal to Sloan’s take on life. He moves with precision and care through a growing mess of boxes, books and papers, some of it deposited by him in spite of himself. He carries off the heart-shaped pieces of dialogue with a natural aplomb. He is the father everyone wants and no one really gets and when he reveals the emotional see-saw on which he stands, teeter-tottering right and left, up and down, he breaks your heart.
As their child, the emerging portrait-painter star of the art world, Mags, is Sandra Struthers Clerc. Mags is the unfortunate wooden spoon in the murky stew that is her parents’ lives. She comes around about once a year and expresses her middling vows of allegiance to them, vows they take with a fistful of salt. She has come home, this time, to help them pack up the home she grew up in and to paint a double portrait of them for a new show she has coming up. It seems a wonderful gesture from a distanced child. In fact, and in the expert playing by Clerc, she has come with ulterior motives that she keeps well-hidden from herself and her father, but not from her mother.
Clerc is excellent as Mags. She is an honest actress, her emotional reactions always visible on her face and in her body. We can see her resemblance to both of Mags’ parents. She lets us in on the truths of the relationships just in the way she imparts information or physically expresses those relationships. Casting her was a stroke of genius. She physically reflects aspects of both Sloan and Pugh. The ensemble playing of these three actors really brings a family dynamic to the fore in this Pulitzer-nominated play, perhaps more-so than in any other production I have seen.
Director David Anderson has done his work well. These people often ignore the cardinal rule of theater - do not move when another actor is speaking. The Churches all move as they wish to, want to, need to in the course of this working visit. Often on important lines the character being addressed, or even the one just listening, will walk across the stage, or sit, or move a large prop. Directors are usually afraid to allow such a thing, but here it becomes an essential as these people are so familiar with one another that they can anticipate what will be said. Anderson allows them that familial assurance. He is right to do this and to do it in such a blatant way, even removing focus, in stage center, from an important speech by emphasizing our visual recognition of the effect that speech is having on others. This is a literal use of the "fly on the wall" technique and I have never seen it done better...anywhere.
The costumes are right for the company and designer Elizabeth Frishkoff even understands the mid-1980s. The odd set by Wendy Frost, while showing the theater company’s economic status, uses her spare materials to create a sense of the hollowness of a place as home when home is truly where the heart is for this trio. Deena Pewtherer lights the show with sensitivity, making more real the harsh moments and more tender the passionate ones. Gili Melamed-Lev effectively enhances the play with her Chopin at the grand piano.
If you like your A R. Gurney plays you will like this Tina Howe piece. She is just as good at portraying this world as her co-hort and even better at getting under the skin of powerful women, turning them almost inside-out in an effort to bring the play to very vivid life. Brilliance marks this production and it is not one to be missed.
Painting Churches plays at the Spencertown Academy through December 4. For information and tickets call 518-755-1716 or go to their website at www.wtdtheater.org.