There are times that community theater feels like a bunch of your friends who have dressed up in your parents' clothes and are putting on a show, and you like it just because they are so well-intentioned; and there are times when community theater feels like someone's discovered something really, really good and they're just hiding it in a back room and pretending it is community theater.
The production of Painting Churches, now playing at the venerable Lon Chaney Theater fits into the latter category. Every bit as well acted and produced as a professional off-Broadway play, the only flaws come from a slightly melodramatic script and the usual problems of radically underfunded theater.
Painting Churches is about the illusions that family members have about one another, and the wounds that they unintentionally create in the messy process of living. Mags Church (Amy Brooks), a young and accomplished New York artist, has come home to her Boston Brahmin parents' home to paint their portrait as they are packing to move permanently to their summer cottage. Her father, Gardner Church (Bob Pinney), is a distinguished poet, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, possessor of artifacts from most of the century's most famous poets -- and a man who is rapidly losing control of his faculties. Her mother, Fanny Church (Cecile Gort), is a Boston matron obsessed with her heritage, her appearance, and the loss of her husband, her status and the life that she has known.
The center of the production and the women's lives is the father, Gardner, and Pinney does an admirable job with the complexities of the man's decline. At times overwhelming in his anger, at times childlike in the haze of his forgetting, Pinney dominates both the play and the lives of the two women characters who dote on him. With his long, lanky frame and wide eyes, Pinney is utterly convincing as a man of great vitality, now trapped in a mind not fully functioning.
Opposite him, Brooks, as the daughter Mags, is especially strong with her physicality onstage, whether it is obsessively eating comfort foods, mimicking a fellow Boston girl or furiously drawing as she attempts to capture her parents in a long-desired portrait. Brooks' taut arms and energetic composure can fill the stage in a moment, drawing your attention to the merest flick of a muscle. She's especially strong in her comic moments where she goes almost, but not quite, over the top and draws out a good guffaw from the audience.
Gort, too, is strong in her comic moments, as she polishes her heirloom silver to see her reflection better, or marches around in a ridiculous hat, obsessed with its designer label. When she and Pinney goof around together, hamming it up for their daughter, they paint a strong portrait of true love in the twilight years.
If the play has a flaw, it stems from the writing itself, where the longer monologues seem occasionally too drawn out and overwrought, and the playwright, Tina Howe, displays a need to pull everything into a neat psychological bow. Director Mark Hennessey mostly manages to overcome this, however, by appearing to keep "dialogue" going with the actors throwing glances, barbs and other nonverbal communication at one another. Pulling out the best of his actors' physical characteristics, Hennessey cannily compensates for a sometimes too wordy script and shows the best of what community theater can accomplish.
-- Andrea Lucard
Presented by the Star Bar Players at the Lon Chaney Theater, City Auditorium, 221 E. Kiowa
March 19, 20, 26, 27 and April 2 and 3 at 8 p.m.; April 4 at 2 p.m.
Call 573-7411 for reservations