Monday, December 12, 2011


This post contains spoilers about Tina Howe's PAINTING CHURCHES

I didn't think I was going to like PAINTING CHURCHES any more than I liked LEMON SKY. Certainly I'm more from the social class that Wilson writes about than the one Howe writes about.

I took a master class with Howe last year (thanks to NYCPlaywrights getting free tickets) and she reminded me of my aunt the nun - tall, thin, fussy, prissy and a bit superior. Although my aunt didn't come from Howe's class either in spite of the fact that my mother's family did well financially when my grandfather was a Teamsters leader in the 1950s. And my grandfather's family was pretty well-to-do. I think my aunt the nun got a small taste of the finer things as a young woman and never forgot it, even when she became a nun.

I remember as a teenager staying with my aunt at her convent for a week, along with two girl cousins around the same age (they were trying to recruit us) and very much appreciating my aunt's top-of-the-line stereo system. I got my first taste of Broadway musicals - FIDDLER ON THE ROOF oddly enough given that I was in a convent. I guess the Church could afford to pay the nuns a decent wage back before their coffers were depleted thanks to all the sexual abuse lawsuits of the 1990s and beyond.

An appreciation for fine things is a trait my mother never shared with Aunt Carmelita (that is her actual name, her nun name is Sister Marie Martin) - my mother's idea of fine dining, for example, is getting a discount coupon to the Penn Queen Diner in Pennsauken NJ. And she always bragged that she was able to pass English lit tests in high school by reading the "Classic Comics" version of the great novels she had been assigned to read. My family are decent people but for the most part complete Philistines.

My aunt also tried to recruit my mother into the convent, but my father talked her out of it.

The family in PAINTING CHURCHES, an older couple and their adult daughter, are rolling in dough. The working plot is that the old couple are packing up to move to their vacation home on Cape Cod to live there year round, and the daughter wants to paint them before they go - although the emotional plot is that the daughter discovers that her father is losing his marbles and her mother is suicidal or at least depressed, contemplating a future of taking care of her incapacitated husband.

When this play was first written in 1983, the topic of the sorrow and the pity of Alzheimer's disease was rarely discussed in movies or on stage. Things have changed in almost 30 years. Certainly NYCPlaywrights members came up with endless variations on that theme for their play readings until I was good and sick of it.

I actually wrote a play in reaction, THE BENEFICENT POWER OF REVENGE. Instead of sorrow and regret over their mother's decline, in my play two sisters actually prefer their mother with Alzheimer's because she's a much nicer person than she was before the disease, when she was bullying, caustic and all-around hateful. One daughter discovers that her mother thwarted her ambition to be a writer by failing to give her an acceptance letter to a writers' colony. And when a doctor gives the mother a new trial drug that reverses the symptoms of Alzheimers' (this is science fiction obviously) her bad personality traits return. In the end the thwarted writer daughter doesn't kill her mother, exactly, she just stops forcing the mother to take her anti-Alzheimer pills and as a result the mother ends up drowning. It's an unusually grim subject and approach for me, but that's how fed up I was with Touching Stories of Alzheimer's Disease.

So when I realized that PAINTING CHURCHES deals with the subject I was prepared to hate it, but in the end I didn't. For a couple of reasons: one is because the old couple is so vividly and entertainingly drawn, it was fun to watch them. And two because the father's mental problems aren't fully displayed until towards the end - he seems as though he might be an absent-minded professor for most the play, so it's something of a shock when it's revealed that he's incontinent. Not just revealed but actually shown on stage - we don't see him peeing, but we see the wet spot on his pants. Not that I want to see old guys with pissy pants, but it's an effective way to portray his decline - it's showing, not only telling. Wow, what a concept.

There is some telling in PAINTING CHURCHES but a flip of YELLOW SKY - only 20% tell and 80% show, which I am sure is part of why it works better.

It's not my favorite play of all time - it's under-dramatic for much of it and the daughter is nowhere near as vivid as the parents (In his positive review Frank Rich blames the actor playing the role) but I was impressed by the depth, subtlety, nuance and gentle humor of the play.

Nice work, Tina Howe. I'm sorry you reminded me of my aunt the nun.