Despite two expert perfs from Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham as emotionally elusive parents of an artist-daughter who tries to win their approval by painting their portrait, Tina Howe’s “Painting Churches,” a finalist for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, doesn’t show well in this earthbound revival helmed by Keen Company a.d. Carl Forsman. Attention is paid to scribe’s whimsical humor and love of language. But her suggestive style of poetic impressionism fails to register in this production, which compromises the delicacy of the play by taking much too literal a view of the characters’ eccentricities.
Boston Brahmins Fanny (Chalfant) and Gardner Church (Cunningham) are the sort of joined-at-the-hip married couple who live in their own private world, communicating in their own private language and observing their own private rituals.
In society, such couples can be charming. But as parents, they can be pure hell. Which explains why their daughter, Mags (Kate Turnbull, cast over her head), a portrait painter who lives in New York, pays them such infrequent visits.
It’s a special occasion that draws Mags back home now. The parents are moving for good out of the family mansion on Beacon Hill and into their cottage on the Cape, and Mags hopes to paint their portrait before they go. But artists must have a clear vision of what they’re painting, and Mags’ fuzzy impressions of her patrician parents — he a distinguished poet and she his unconventional wife — hasn’t changed since childhood.
But neither do Fanny and Gardner know much about their only daughter. So the play is very much a discovery journey, with Mags jolted into awareness of her parents’ current state of mind and body, and Fanny and Gardner belatedly acknowledging their daughter’s grievances.
Howe has written poignant solo moments for each of her fondly observed characters. Cunningham is quietly heartbreaking when Gardner, distraught at seeing his precious books and manuscripts sacrificed in the household move, expresses his distress by reciting poetry. Thesp’s eloquent readings of Yeats and Frost and Emily Dickinson cut right to the heart.
Chalfant, who gamely builds an unflattering portrait of Fanny as a zany, but selfish and insensitive society matron in Act One, really lets it rip when Mags reproaches her for making a mockery of her distinguished husband. Doing Fanny proud, Chalfant reveals a stronger, braver side of the woman that her narcissistic daughter was too blind to notice.
Mags gets the chance to wave her own flag when she turns on her parents for stifling her own youthful attempts at artistic expression. Turnbull is essentially defeated by the lengthy monologue; but, to be fair, the overwrought language and strained imagery would defeat anyone.
Despite such lapses, “Painting Churches” is still a stunner, a group portrait painted in a soft, impressionistic style. But the shimmering lights of this visual poem have been dimmed in this too-too production — too solid, too specific, too literal, too loud, and too bright.