In a revival of Tina Howe’s ‘Painting Churches,’ Kathleen Chalfant nails her Boston blueblood matron

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Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham. ()
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I spent most of the first act of Tina Howe's gentle comedy Painting Churches thinking she’d gotten it wrong.

The trio at the play's center—a Boston blueblood couple named Fanny and Gardner Church and their bohemian daughter Mags—always seemed to be talking past, rather than to, each other. It might be accurate, and it was often funny, but most of the time the dialogue just felt forced.

But by the second act, when Mags is painting a formal portrait of her parents, it was clear that Howe had gotten things right after all. As the elderly Gardner grows more and more befuddled, unable to follow the thread of the conversation, it's clear that real communication hasn't been possible in this household for some time. It's been replaced by idle chatter, exasperated sighs, and, when Fanny loses control, outbursts that can seem terribly cruel.

All this is too much for Mags, whose visit comes as her parents are packing up their possessions to move from a townhouse in Beacon Hill to a cottage on Cape Cod that's "the size of a handkerchief." When Mags angrily confronts her mother about treating her father like "a child or some dim-witted servant boy," Fanny doesn't pull any punches. She derides her daughter for refusing to see that Gardner has changed. "If you want to paint us so badly," Fanny says, "you ought to paint us as we really are."

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Kathleen Chalfant, undoubtedly the right choice to play Fanny, never raises her voice during the entire monologue. Sometimes speaking barely above a whisper, Chalfant conveys not only her character's anger, but also her frustration and, finally, her resignation. It's as if she's passing through all the stages of grief right before your eyes.

If you're wondering how all this could possibly be a comedy, rest assured that Howe has a keen sense of humor and an eye for the absurd. There aren't many laugh-out-loud moments in this revival of Howe's 1983 play, but there are quite a few times when you'll chuckle. Gardner holding a serving fork as he and Fanny strike an American Gothic pose is one of the evening's funniest moments.

Howe was exploring the same territory as Stephen Sondheim did the same year in Sunday in the Park with George. In Sondheim's 1983 musical, painter George Seurat promises his mother that he will "draw us now before we fade." Mags never voices this sentiment to her own mother, but her desire to paint the portrait is at least partly motivated by her desire to keep her aging parents forever as they are. At first Fanny ridicules the notion, but by the end she and Gardner come to understand their daughter.

As Gardner, John Cunningham is a good balance for Chalfant. Over the course of the play his bright eyes dim a bit, and you can see Gardner's clarity and passion slowly ebb away. Kate Turnbill is appealing as Mags, although you never get the sense that this is a woman whose career as a teacher and artist is finally taking off.

The current production of Painting Churches, the first major New York revival since it debuted, is the Keen Company's second foray into Howe territory. Director Carl Fosman, who directed Howe's Museum back in 2002, has emphasized the play's more sentimental aspects. It's not always the best tactic, as Painting Churches is most moving when it strips away the sentiment.

Painting Churches is running through April 7 at the Clurman Theatre in Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Tickets are $59.75 and are available at 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.