Scripter Lynn Roth has broadened Tina Howe’s tender, charming 1983 Obie winner “Painting Churches,” which effectively appeared on PBS’s “American Playhouse” in 1986, and in the process developed a nicely wrapped study of aging , loving parents and the adult daughter they’ve shut out all these years. With Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall as major draws, the TV movie under Arthur Penn’s shrewd direction puts a bid in for polish.
Gardner and Fanny Church (Peck and Bacall) are unexpectedly and happily visited by daughter Mags (Cecilia Peck), N.Y. artist who wants to finish a portrait of them for her one-woman show.
She’s surprised to find they’re moving out of the family home, which they’ve already sold, and are leaving the academic community where he, a respected poet, taught before his retirement.
Fanny’s frantic banter has a touch of the manic about it, and her face darkens occasionally when Mags asks about Dad, or when he forgets something — Fanny’s wary looks are awkward tipoffs.
Startled Mags can’t get a straight answer about anything from her cheery, vague mother; her father says simply that Fanny wants to move. As for posing for the portrait, the parents are totally and unkindly unhelpful.
The core of the vidpic — Fanny coming to terms with Gardner’s encroaching senility — weakens considerably when she explains to Mags that they’re moving because she doesn’t want his peers seeing him slip into mental darkness. By this time, with all Fanny’s grimaces, Gardner’s behavior and their friends’ concern, the move seems less a gallant resolution, more a convenience.
Peck, terrific as the aging poet, delivers a don’t-expect-us-to-change speech to Mags that’s moving and pointed. Bacall gives her role an off-kilter charge that’s puzzlingly strained.
Penn’s direction emphasizes the darker elements of Roth’s teleplay.
Cecilia Peck, Gregory Peck’s daughter, is a plus as a rejected offspring finally coming to terms with herself. Paul McCrane as her uncomfortable suitor, the esteemed Collin Wilcox Paxton as the chancellor who introduces Church before his recitation, Joyce O’Connor and Mitchell Laurance as the new owners all add good texture.
Tech credits are solid, and Cynthia Millar provides a lovely score.