A Flat Canvas

In de Acha's staging, Mags's dramatic journey is reduced to a petulant child's selfish demand for attention, one that culminates in her parents' approval of the portrait she paints of them. This tack underplays the work's core theme: the realization that our parents age and die. Mags rushes to capture Fanny and Gardner on canvas, while the rest of us try to make do with memories. De Acha's choice to turn Howe's fanciful distractions into a literal environment makes Mags aware of her parents' plight too soon. Consequently, Fanny's second-act bravura monologue -- "Paint us?! What about opening your eyes and really seeing us?" -- registers as heartless overkill rather than jolting Mags (and the audience) into understanding.

In keeping with de Acha's constrained approach, the cast gives sincere performances, creating believable characters that stop just short of being fully realized. A veteran of New Theatre's original mounting of Painting Churches, Levin lends a commanding presence to the proceedings, but she never quite communicates the love of a woman sacrificing everything for her husband. Portraying Gardner as a tragic figure, Yule splits his performance between flashes of regal coherence and pathetic helplessness delineated by long, motionless pauses. The actor elicits our pity by showing a once-brilliant man in severe decline, and yet pity is not an emotion that flows inward to touch an audience's collective soul. Yule's Gardner never seems distraught at his confusion, nor does he indicate an awareness of the inexorable horror of his situation -- an awareness that might provide an uneasy glimpse into our own possible futures. As Mags, Roza is a bundle of furtive movements that proclaim her insecurities and protect her from Fanny's forcefulness and her memories of Gardner's imposing greatness.

Dorset Noble's minimalist set of doorway, mantel, and window seat effectively conveys the bare outline of the Church home, but his packing boxes filled with mundane articles don't reflect a lifetime's worth of accumulated treasures and junk-shop oddities. Likewise, Lea Far's costuming imposes an everyday normality that undermines Howe's vision; Gardner's tidy matched buttoned shirt and sweater, for example, are beyond the dressing capabilities of a man who gets lost in his own hallway, while Fanny's supposed bargain-basement couture looks as though it wouldn't be out of place on Marshall's mark-down rack. Only M. Todd Williams's sensitive lighting evokes the irrevocable transitions that occur as the balance of power shifts in the parent/child relationship.

Howe once described Painting Churches as "very off-center," adding, "God help me if I ever write a realistic play. I take a familiar reality and lift it about six feet off the ground." The fact that South Florida audiences have yet to be treated to productions of her other works -- including One Shoe Off, Coastal Disturbances, and Approaching Zanzibar -- makes this atypical staging even more troubling. The latter two dramatic comedies offer up feminist healers who, like Fanny, face mortality with compassion and defiance; both works culminate in an affirmation of life.

In Painting Churches, that affirming moment comes when Mags unveils the portrait of her parents. Reminded of a Renoir masterpiece featuring dancers, Fanny and Gardner momentarily slip into Renoir's world, dancing across the stage. "I wanted to make it clear that when you see Gardner and Fanny dancing, that is the portrait Mags has been painting the whole week," Howe once explained. "The daughter realizes that as her parents waltz gracefully into the past, they're disappearing in front of her eyes. A lot of people have asked me, 'Why don't we get to see the picture at the end of the play?' The answer is, 'The play is the picture.'"

In accordance with its strict take on the work, New Theatre chooses to turn the portrait to face the audience. While bearing a cursory resemblance to the couple, it's a flat representation that misses their inner spark. And it serves as a fitting metaphor for this well-intentioned misrepresentation of Howe's work.

Painting Churches.
Written by Tina Howe; directed by Rafael de Acha; with Sally Levin, Bill Yule, and Pamela Rosa. Through March 30. For information, call 443-5909 or see "Calendar Listings.

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