A Flat Canvas

Since 1986, when it was founded, Coral Gables's New Theatre has presented Southeast and world premieres, filling its eclectic seasons with local rarities -- classics by Ibsen, Chekhov, O'Neill, and Williams -- as well as signature works by Mamet, Gurney, McNally, and other contemporary playwrights, including Manhattan-based Tina Howe. Now, for the second time in its short history, the New Theatre presents Howe's Painting Churches (it originally played here during the 1988-89 season) in an incarnation that doesn't provide an optimal introduction to the serio-comic playwright or her best-known work. The director and cast offer a respectful, solemn staging worthy of a play by O'Neill; this play, however, is by Howe, and New Theatre's overearnest production obliterates the shading of characterization and lightness of mood that earned her the 1983 Obie Award for distinguished play writing.

Certainly the subject matter is heavy enough for tragedy. Margaret Church (Pamela Roza), a young painter known for her portraits and singular use of light, arrives at her upper-class family's Boston home to find her eccentric mother Fanny (Sally Levin) and multi-Pulitzer Prize-winning poet father Gardner (Bill Yule) packing for a move to a smaller house. Just prior to her first solo show at a prestigious gallery, Mags, as her parents call her, has come home to paint them and, in the process, perhaps gain their long-withheld respect. But things have changed dramatically in the Church household since Mags's last visit. She is shocked to discover that her father's intellect has been eroded by Alzheimer's disease, a situation that has, in turn, changed her mother from a lighthearted free spirit into a frustrated caregiver.

Given the somewhat grim circumstances, Fanny resolves to "exit with a little flourish, have some fun." Accordingly, she runs a peculiar household, both amusing herself and providing a playful environment for Gardner. She greets Mags sporting one of her vast collection of 85-cent thrift-store hats, and quickly shows off her latest triumph: a reading lamp of her own creation, outfitted with a shade depicting Venice's Grand Canal twinkling at dusk. As she maneuvers around packing boxes, Mags realizes that she is on her last trip home; time is moving her parents out of reach.

The granddaughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe and the daughter of radio and television commentator Quincey Howe and his painter wife Mary, Tina Howe looked to her own family for inspiration. In an interview published in Best American Plays 1983-1992, she said her mother was "an original -- very funny, very dramatic, always dressing in extreme clothing, just like the mother in Painting Churches. There was more fear and suffering in their lives than I've shown -- in that sense, the play's romantic. I so much wanted to write a happier ending for them, for everybody's parents." Unfortunately, that goal isn't achieved in the current production, which replaces Howe's mix of surrealism and absurdity with melodramatic pathos.

Only occasionally does the innate lyricism of Howe's script -- notably, her use of poetry -- rise above New Theatre's earthbound production. Though pretty far gone, Gardner can still rally out of senility's haze to recite glorious snatches of Dickinson, Yeats, and Frost. Mags, on the other hand, uses poetry to avoid the ramifications of plainly saying what is on her mind. As a child she was so intimidated by her parents that she was unable to swallow, causing her to spew her food all over the table. In the first act's dramatic closing scene, she recalls that the punishment meted out for her childhood table manners -- six months of dinners alone in her room -- nearly killed her. Rather than confronting her parents with their failure to notice she was rejecting the delivered meals to the point of starvation, Mags berates them for their later destruction of the masterpiece she created in exile by melting crayons on a radiator. "It was a knockout," she says, racing to get the words out, "shimmering with pinks and blues, lavenders and maroons, turquoise and golds, oranges and creams. For every color I imagined a taste. Yellow: lemon curls dipped in sugar. Red: glazed cherries laced with rum. Green: tiny peppermint leaves veined with chocolate. And then the frosting -- ahhh, the frosting! A satiny mix of white and silver. My huge, looming, teetering sweet."

Somewhat wrongheadedly, I think, Rafael de Acha directs Painting Churches as straight drama, stripping away Howe's comic relief. I remember laughing a lot when I saw its 1983 off-Broadway premiere. As I recall, Marian Seldes's Fanny clopped around the stage in galoshes for most of the first act, and her lamp served as a constant symbol of wonder, testifying to Fanny's will to lighten Gardner's darkening inner world. De Acha uses the galoshes and magical lamp as simple props; of course, every director has the right to make a play his own, but only if the script can support the interpretation. Howe's work cannot bear the rigors of linear dramaturgy; hers is a character study built on transitions (Gardner's deterioration, Fanny's acceptance, and Mags's adulthood) with no need for subtle foreshadowing or a surprising final act denouement.

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