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.

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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