Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
Well, we have to admit that the newest kid on the block, The Flint Theatre Guild, hit their pinnacle Thursday evening. They did it with their smashing production of Tina Howe’s Painting Churches, a comical and touching story about family, the issues of aging and the changes that can occur.
Fanny and Gardner Churches, here played impeccably by Kay and Michael Kelly, are preparing to move from their cherished Beacon Street home. They have long been among Boston’s elite residents with Gardner a prize-winning poet in league with Robert Frost and the like. Now, with Gardner’s memory slipping and his income disappearing, they are selling the house to move to a tiny cottage.
In contrast, their daughter Margaret (Mags), played with astonishing depth by Katie Young, arrives with news of her upcoming gallery display. Mags is an artist and her career is just taking off which presents an interesting juxtaposition to what her parents are facing. And while her parents believe she has come to help them move, she explains she mostly wants to paint their portrait.
Director Shelly L. Hoffman had a boatload of talent to work with here and still managed to infuse intriguing elements of staging and tech. The set is a beautiful Boston townhouse under attack as boxes stack up and pictures come down leaving their marks on the Wedgewood blue walls. A moment of mother/daughter cohesion centered on a lamp crafted by Fanny showcasing the Venice Grand Canal with light showing through the windows. It’s one of the only times the two found common ground.
In his obvious decline, Gardner is still an imposing figure right up to the end. He spouts poetry from memory and his character’s slip into dotage is comically expressed with facial quirks and expressions as well as his penchant for piling on clothing to keep it from being packed away.
Both the Churches are generally dismayed at their situation, but Mags is both shocked and angered by her mother’s treatment of her father. This sets up a first act wherein Gardner is viewed kindly and Fanny is seen as uncaring. Act 2 hits a reset button with the depth of Fanny’s love as well as the enormity of her burden emerging.
Mags does ultimately paint the portrait. It emerges from a wealth of interaction with these two people she hasn’t seen in a year and who she thought raised her without appreciating her talent. Her anguished description of her crayon sculpture is intense and clearly drawn. Still, her switch from anger to deepening sorrow over the state of her parents’ life is a highpoint of the story.
With all of that said, the ending of this show is a climax to cherish. All of the love that was tossed about and the anger that had emerged now dissolved as this family drama brought many to tears. It is so worth the effort. Don’t miss it.
Painting Churches continues at the University of Michigan-Flint Black Box August 9, 10, 16, 17 and 18. Tickets are available online at FlintTheatreGuild.Eventbrite.com