THEATER | “Painting Churches” (and watching the paint dry) at Park Square


An unlikely cross between On Golden Pond and Waiting for Godot is the best way to describe Painting Churches, which opened last Friday at Park Square Theatre. Playwright Tina Howe wrote this drama in the 1980s and it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Although Painting Churches was a hit off-Broadway, it appears to be a play better suited to be studied than performed on a stage.

The play is a semi-autobiographical story inspired by Howe’s relationship with her parents. Mags Church (Angela Timberman) is the Howe character, a talented painter/teacher who has returned to the family mansion in Boston to help her parents pack as they prepare to downsize to a cottage on Cape Cod. Mags’s father, Gardner Church (Richard Ooms), is a Pulitzer-winning poet who is suffering from incontinence, an inability to write poetry, and encroaching senility. Mags’s mother, Fanny Church (Katherine Ferrand), is from old Boston money but likes to shop in thrift stores. Fanny is being worn down by the reality that their finances are shrinking, her husband is sinking into dementia, and her life will be one of a caretaker for his remaining years. Despite her success as an artist, Mags is still looking for approval and recognition from her parents. It is revealed that her real purpose for returning home is to obtain this approval by painting her parent’s portrait (hence the title).

Having to deal with elderly parents myself, including one with Alzheimer’s, I looked forward to the production, but little in the play rang true to my experiences. Most adult children in this situation are more consumed with how to take care of their parents than they are with unrealized parental recognition. Instead, Fanny becomes the most interesting character in the play. Fanny was very absorbed with her role as a famous poet’s wife. She was less than perfect as a mother, often not loving and highly critical of her daughter Mags. One scene alludes to the fact that, as a young child, Mags developed an eating disorder after her mother banned her from family dinners because of her crude table manners. But Fanny now, despite her occasional bouts of making fun of her ailing husband, is stepping up to the role of becoming his caretaker and making the hard decisions for the remainder of their lives. At one point Fanny confides to Mags that given the status of Fanny’s current life, she would prefer to put a gun to her head—but she can’t because Gardner needs her to take care of him. Unfortunately, Mags’s character shows far less growth throughout the play than Fanny. Also, despite an occasional moment in the play, there is very little sense of a family bond between Mags and either parent.

painting churches, playing through march 21 at park square theatre. for tickets ($36) and information, see

There is very little humor in this play, which is unfortunate because the scenes that work the best are the scenes with humor. A couple of memorable scenes occur when Fanny and Gardner engage in playing games, including pretending to be airplanes and imitating famous paintings, when they are supposed to be sitting still for their portrait. These game playing scenes are reminiscent of the game playing that occurred in Waiting for Godot and, as in Godot, are a welcome respite from the general lack of action in the play.

The production at Park Square Theatre fails to overcome the problems with the play. There is no sense that any of these three characters have a strong bond with each other. Ferrand does the best job, playing the eccentric Fanny, and most of the play’s limited humor comes from her character. Ooms unfortunately has little to work with. Gardner is a role that alternates between clarity and senility, sharing little dialogue with the other characters. Timberman’s performance as Mags is played almost entirely at one level, and it is not until the very end that you get any sense that Mags even comprehends the changes in her parent’s lives.

Nayna Ramey’s set design is one of the show’s highlights. The entire play takes place in a sitting room in the family’s Beacon Hill mansion. Ramey’s set conveys the sense of an old-style mansion. Then with each successive scene, Ramey arranges to have less and less furniture until the final scene when the room is empty. It is a very effective metaphor for the changes happening to Fanny and Gardner Church.

I applaud Park Square Theatre for seeking to showcase a play that is not well known and which has not been produced in the Twin Cities for more than a decade. Ultimately, however, it proves a performance that leads me to conclude that reading and dissecting this play might be more productive than watching it on the stage.