Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Painting Churches at the Banyon Theater

I don't have many rules about writing for this blog.  It is, after all, my own space so any rules that exist are both self-imposed and self-monitored.   But if I read a book or see a play that my mind keeps returning to, I write about it here.  Writing functions as an exorcism of sorts, freeing up space for more useless information to collect in my head.  Last week-end I saw Painting Churches by Tina Howe at the Banyon Theater in Sarasota, and it has stuck with me.  This semi-autobiographical play about a daughter who returns home to help her parents move out of their family home was quite thought-provoking.

Jenny Aldrich as Fanny and
Don Walker as Gardner
In the opening scene, we find Fanny Church packing her family silver to take to her new home.  She proudly tells us about her grandmother's Paul Revere spoons that the Metropolitan Museum of Art offered to purchase for $50,000.  Fanny is sporting a jaunty red hat that we learn she purchased at a thrift shop for 85 cents.  The ambiguity is immediate--has the family fallen on hard times or is this just a case of a rich matron who likes a good bargain?   In the background, we hear husband--and poet laureate--Gardner banging away on a typewriter as he works on his latest project.  Eventually, daughter Margaret appears on the scene--home for the first time in a year--with her own agenda of painting a portrait of her parents while helping them pack.

From the start, the family dynamics were painful to watch.   Nobody seems able to actually hear what the others are saying.  When Margaret shares the news that she is going to have a one woman show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, her parents seem more interested in eating their snack of Goldfish than in sharing in her happiness.  When her mother does engage, she talks about how her own mother was the "real talent" in the family, with no apparent concern or understanding of the impact her comments have on Margaret.  As the play goes on, we learn that this is only the latest in a long history of interactions that makes us understand why spending time at home might not be Margaret's top choice of places to be.

Olivia Williamson as
That isn't to say that Margaret has been the ideal daughter.  While Margaret has been off living her own life, Fanny has had to deal with her husband's deteriorating health alone.  Gardner wanders in and out of situations and conversations at random.  Even when he's in the room, he's often off in his own world thinking about his poetry and the "book" that he's working on.  Margaret clearly has no concept of what has been happening with her parents.  She is quick to judge her mother when she makes comments about Gardner that aren't particularly kind without realizing the deep frustration and sadness that her mother must constantly feel.   (As an aside, Fanny and Gardner Church are played by a couple who are married in real life.  I can only imagine this glimpse into their potential future must not have made for the easiest roles to play.)

The play did have some humor, especially when it came to Fanny and Gardner's contemplation of how they'd like to sit for their portrait.  Perhaps as the couple in American Gothic?  Maybe a Pieta pose?  Or how about the Creation of Man?  My friend Carolyn and I particularly enjoyed Fanny's reference to dressing up in a black dress and posing like "in that famous Sargent painting."  (Carolyn and I are both on the board of the Visual Arts Center and the reference was to John Singer Sargent's painting of the mysterious Madame X.  Sargent is the featured artist in the VAC's Fine Arts Festival which will be held in November.)  

As the play drew to a close, Fanny and Gardner danced in the foreground as Margaret looked on.  The scene perfectly captured their lives as less than a cohesive family unit.

I'm sure that one of the reasons Painting Churches has lingered with me is because I visited my own parents last week to help out while my mom recovered from some knee surgery. We are a much closer family than the Churches -- dysfunctional, I'm sure, but in a wholly different way. But it's a fact that my parents are getting older.  And it's also a fact that I'd rather stick my head in the sand and live my own life than help them deal with the issues of aging.  Painting Churches was a reminder to me of the importance of family and to appreciate the time that we have together.  The trick, of course, is remembering that in the moment when you are driving each other crazy!  With a family vacation scheduled for August, I'll get the opportunity to practice.


  1. Every family is dysfunctional in their own ways, and dealing with aging parents is not for sissies, that's for sure! Nanette, you have, through recounting this play for us, touched on the experiences all of us go through at some point in our lives.

  2. Nanette, you've made me want to see this play. My parents have long since died and just last year I lost my in-laws. Loss and aging are two subjects that, whether we like it or not, resonate with all of us. I'm still quite tenderized from the experiences and I suspect I will continue to be as my own aging progresses. Ah life! LOL!

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