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Family ties — ties that bind, ties that torture — is the thorny subject of the present OdysseyStage Theatre production of Tina Howe’s Painting Churches, a nominee for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play explores the rocky relationship between three very strong-willed and highly opinionated personalities: Margaret “Mags” Church (Lisa Binion), an up-and-coming portrait painter who grew up in — and is finally emerging from — the shadow of her world-famous father, and her ailing dad, celebrated writer Gardner Church (Carroll Credle), and often overbearing mother, Fanny Church (Christine Rogers).
The occasion is the imminent move of the elder Churches from their posh address on Beacon Hill in Boston to their modest cottage by the Massachusetts shore. Several days before the movers are scheduled to arrive, Mags returns to help with the packing and to paint a formal portrait of her parents. She finds her father in failing health and both her parents fiercely arguing over what to take with them and what to discard. As the time to move grows nearer and nearer, the arguments between Fanny and Gardner Church get more and more vehement, and Mags becomes more and more upset.
How these three stormy characters ultimately find peace — and make peace with each other — is what interested the Pulitzer Prize jury. It also is what piques the audience’s interest.
In the current OdysseyStage community-theater production of Painting Churches, Carroll Credle cuts a grand — if a little hammy — figure as a once great author who has become a veritable caricature of an absent-minded professor, no longer capable of writing original verse and reduced to penning endless sprawling critiques of the poems of William Butler Yeats, Theodore Roethke, et al. As his alarming memory lapses intensify, Gardner Church becomes more and more alarmed. What if these annoying lapses in memory presage Alzheimer’s disease?
Christine Rogers is a pip as Fanny Church, the devoted but sometimes devious wife who knows how to push all her husband’s hot buttons, and the loving but manipulative mother who also knows how to push all her daughter’s hot buttons. Lisa Binion gets a little overemotional at times, but generally does an excellent job as the high-strung prodigal daughter come home to deal with two aging and intensely aggravating parents. Mags’ parents make her crazy, she knows it, and yet she comes when they need her — like all good daughters and sons do — potentially sacrificing her own mental health to be with her father and mother in a difficult hour.
Director Nick Karner and scenic designer Rebecca Miller make the most of the limited space afforded by the tiny stage in the Robert M. Seymour Auditorium, and costume designer Melanie Miller provides a varied wardrobe for these three truly unforgettable characters.
OdysseyStage Theatre presents Painting Churches Friday-Saturday, 28-29, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 30, at 3 p.m. in the Robert M. Seymour Auditorium in the Chapel Hill Senior Center, 400 S. Elliott Rd., Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $10 ($8 students and seniors). 919/929-4493. OdysseyStage Theatre: http://www.odysseystage.org/ [inactive 2/07]. Tina Howe: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=8894 and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0397901/. The Portrait: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107859/.
Chapel Hill, NC-based OdysseyStage Theatre will present Painting Churches, an offbeat comic drama by Tina Howe, Oct. 21-30 at the Chapel Hill Senior Center. Painting Churches made its Off-Broadway debut in 1983 at 2econd Stage Theatre and earned Howe the first of her two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Her other Pulitzer nomination was for Pride’s Crossing, and her play Coastal Disturbances was nominated for the 1987 Tony Award® for Best Play.)
In reviewing the show’s world-premiere production of Painting Churches, Edith Oliver of The New Yorker called the play “an enchanting comedy.” She added, “The quicksilver imagination behind it darts from one surprise to the next. Under the spell of the playwright — a sleight-of-hand artist if ever there was one — moods change quickly and moments of calm shatter, sometimes in laughter, sometimes not.”
In Back Stage, Victor Gluck wrote, “In Painting Churches, Tina Howe has turned the stage into her canvas. Painting Churches dramatizes the process of art while at the same time stripping the characters down to their true essence and revealing their portraits without paint.”
Award-winning director Arthur Penn directed the 1993 television-movie version of the play, which was called The Portrait and starred Gregory Peck as Gardner Church, Lauren Bacall as Fanny Church, and Cecilia Peck as Margaret “Mags” Church.
OdysseyStage guest director Nick Karner says, “Oddly enough, I had never heard of, nor read, nor seen this play until one of my producers, John Paul Middlesworth, lent me the script. I became excited by the prospect of beginning the production with a clean slate. Since I knew very little of the play prior to reading it, this would enable me to create a show without the pressure of trying to one-up any previous performance I might have witnessed.”
Karner adds, “You know, it’s funny … a friend of mine asked what play I was directing, and when I told him Painting Churches, he asked: “Oh, that’s that play about art, right?” For some odd reason, I immediately responded by saying, “No. It’s about family.” I didn’t even think before I spoke. It just came out.
“I realized that on the surface, the play seems to revolve around painting and art,” Karner explains. “However, when you dig a little deeper, you find there is much more to it than that. In terms of dynamic characters, you don’t get much better than the roles in this play. Often, I feel that some authors resort to writing stereotypical characters in order to get their point across. It’s the truly cunning and resourceful writers that dare to create multi-dimensional and complex men and women for the stage.”
Karner says, “What I like best and what drew me to this play was the sheer richness of these three extraordinary people and their interactions with each other. It’s important to me, especially in the more dramatic vein of theater, that the characters are believable, and I wanted to direct this play to show that beauty can come out of the most seemingly ordinary and average human beings.
“As the lights come up,” Nick Karner says, “we meet Fanny Church (Christine Rogers), the rambunctious wife of famed author Gardner Church (Carroll Credle). She is busy taking inventory of her precious valuables, because in only a few days’ time, the pair will be moving out of their beloved Boston townhouse. Old age has finally caught up with them, so they invite their outrageous artist daughter, Mags (Lisa Binion), to help with the packing.
“Mags is thrilled to be back,” says Karner, “especially since her parents have reluctantly agreed to have their portraits painted. As the story unfolds, we discover that Gardner Church is not well, and Fanny has begun to question his sanity. Being home, Mags’ own personal demons begin to haunt her; and by the time the last packing crate has been shipped, each of them will be changed forever.”
In addition to producers John Paul Middlesworth and Rebecca Miller and director Nick Karner, who co-designed the set with Miller and serves as the show’s sound designer, the creative team for this community-theater production of Painting Churches includes lighting designer Lyle Bass, costume designer Melanie Miller, and stage manager Lyle Bass.
“Utilizing a space as intimate as the Robert M. Seymour Theatre is tricky,” Nick Karner admits, “since we want to give an audience the feeling that they are in a living room that was once populated by countless treasures and baubles. I decided to extend the stage several feet in order to give the room a wider scope as well as a feeling of emptiness. I worked very closely with the cast in terms of blocking. It was important to me that my actors would never feel reluctant to try different things, and many improvisations from countless rehearsals have ended up in the performance. The real challenge was choosing between the endless possibilities the play and its characters offered in terms of staging.”
Karner says, “The set is a section of the Churches’ living room in their Boston townhouse on Beacon Hill. There are two massive windows on either side of the stage. Most of the family’s belongings are packed away in boxes, which litter various spaces of the floor. Only a couch and an armchair remain, and they too are covered by sheets, ready to be shipped off to Cotuit.”
He adds, “I decided that this play did not need to be showered with light. I opted instead for a minimalist approach and used only a few key lights to brighten the stage.
“Costume designer Melanie Miller has really outdone herself this time,” Karner claims. “She has fashioned Fanny Church with the most outrageous hats and outfits, befitting a woman of a unique and high-class taste. Gardner Church, as is the case with many writers, is often seen in a bathrobe or a disheveled suit. This complements his character traits beautifully. The most fun has been creation of Mags’ costumes. She is a unique and flamboyant person, ready to try anything. Her outfits often reflect her character: bold, brash, artistic and, above-all, open-minded.”
According to Nick Karner, “Anyone who has ever had even the slightest little tiff with their family will enjoy this play. It’s jam-packed with revealing, often shocking moments that I’m sure many of the audience members will likely recall happening in their own lives. Hilarious and heartfelt, it is a riveting look at the unique bond shared by a family and their endless love for one another. Sometimes coming to terms with success means coming to terms with something even bigger … your parents.”
OdysseyStage Theatre presents Painting Churches Friday-Saturday, Oct. 21-22 and 28-29, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 23 and 30, at 3 p.m. in the Robert M. Seymour Auditorium in the Chapel Hill Senior Center, 400 S. Elliott Rd., Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $10 ($8 students and seniors). 919/929-4493. OdysseyStage Theatre: http://www.odysseystage.org/ [inactive 2/07]. Tina Howe: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=8894 and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0397901/. The Portrait: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107859/.