Tina Howe's 12-year-old debut play, "Painting Churches," which suggested to many a fully developed playwright at first bloom, is beginning to look rather worn around the edges.
Like Ernest Thompson's acclaimed, unashamedly sentimental plays such as "On Golden Pond," Howe's semi-autobiographical portrayal of a young painter named Margaret Church (read Howe herself) coming to terms with her elderly parents mental and physical decay is formulated with one part laughs and two parts tragedy--and every part calculated.
It's the kind of material that Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy once played like duo violins, but which most other actors attempt only at their great peril. At San Clemente Community Theatre's Cabrillo Playhouse, it's perilous indeed.
Either out of uncommon regard for the play or out of some disconnection with his actors, director David Martin has paced things so hesitantly that it almost feels from time to time not directed at all.
Howe noted at the time of the original production that because the underlying action involves painting--namely Margaret's painting of a group portrait of her father (and renowned poet), Gardner Church, and mother Fanny Church--the composing of precise stage pictures was crucial.
Think of the careful pictures Tennessee Williams imagined for the similarly intimate "Glass Menagerie," and you get a sense of what Howe was going for in "Churches." But on a Paul Vogler set that never begins to suggest an abode in Boston's ultra-tony Beacon Hill enclave, there is little that appears composed or painterly.
What is critically off-kilter at the Cabrillo is the casting of Margaret (Richelle Matheny) and Fanny (Sandy Silver).
Matheny, playing a young artist about to emerge into her own but unable to gain her demanding upper-class parents' approval, can't seem to grasp the two sides of Margaret. Margaret is the play's most complex but not most affecting character, wanting to preserve the family she once knew both on canvas and in her own mind, but disarmed by her famous father's decline into senility. Alas, Matheny simply plays everything at the same note and within a seriously narrow emotional range.
Fanny is the obnoxious one, long exhausted with having to baby-sit Gardner and casually pressuring Margaret to readopt a Beacon Hill style of dress and manner the daughter has long rejected. Howe is going after a study in mother-daughter alienation, and though it's far from powerful, it also isn't the dull banter that goes on here. Silver is too young as Fanny and burdened with a curiously mannered delivery and voice that keep us from getting to know this woman.
Bill Carden as Gardner, on the other hand, is terrifically evocative of a wise New England poet-artist (he strikingly resembles the late composer John Cage), and pulls off the demanding task of being in and out of awareness--one minute able to recite Yeats, the next unable to recognize his own manuscript.
One also senses that Martin could bring a great deal more out of this very good actor than he does, but Carden provides a human through-line for us to assess the tragedy of Howe's family struggle.
* "Painting Churches," Cabrillo Playhouse, 202 Avenue Cabrillo, San Clemente. 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday. Ends Saturday. $10. (714) 492-0465. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
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Sandy Silver: Fanny Church
Bill Carden: Gardner Church
Richelle Matheny: Margaret Church
A San Clemente Community Theatre production of Tina Howe's play. Directed by David Martin. Set: Paul Vogler. Lights: Erica Guerra. Sound: K. Robert Eaton.