The Concord Journal
Life' complexities portrayed well in 'Painting Churches'
By Parkman Howe  

Journal Theater Reviewer

Beacon Hill is falling down. Its first families are all going mad. Today's sliver (if it hasn't been stolen) doesn't weigh as much as antique silver. Everyone is moving to Cotuit.

The filthy modern tide is lapping at the doorsteps of even our highest hills, according to playwright Tina Howe, author of "Painting Churches," the Concord Players' excellent winter production.

Whatever past glories of the Church family -- the play's subject -- eminent friends, Pulitzer Prizes, the finest schools -- they have since fallen on hard times; trust funds are drying up, their only daughter can't seem to get married, they have to sell their Beacon Hill manse. Despite physical and mental decay, the Churches are far from dead. Fanny Church, the family matriarch, stands like a monument amid the ruin of her husband's decline and her daughter's indifference. By turns whimsical, repressive and stalwart, she dominates the play just as she dominates the lives of her husband and daughter. Trust funds may be drying up, but the well of character overflows.

Thankfully, the Concord Players has Betsy Connelly who can wield the epithet "Darling" like a fan or an ice pick, depending on the occasion and audience.

By turns charming and venomous, we like and loathe Fanny Church, and the complexity of our response arises from the complexity of Ms. Connelly's portrait. Like P.G. Wodehouse's Aunt, Fanny Church is not a gentlewoman. She is equally adept at spotting a "charming" hat on sale and savaging her daughter's insecurities.

Ms. Connelly makes us want to come to tea, but not stay the afternoon. Her tirade against her daughter's neglect of her family in Act Two is a tour de force.

Duncan Nelson plays the doddering husband and father with charm we feel toward certain revered but fading professors who inevitably grace alumni receptions. He may be incontinent, he may sink into inexplicable silences, but he always recovers to recite Yeats beautifully. Mr. Nelson gives a most convincing account of old age's ruined masonry.

In many ways Claudia Everest as Mags Church has the most difficult role of the play. Mags is daughter, scapegoat, old maid, princess and artist stuffed into a single, lumpy character.

Ms. Everest has her best moments when her mother's taunts and insults beat her into pained silence. She makes us feel the leaden weight of a lifetime in each sinking silence.

Deborah Crockett's crisp direction keeps the play moving toward the tableaux which end each scene like a Sargent portrait.

The Concord Players are most fortunate to have Stephen McGonagle as set designer and builder. His fragmentary set design perfectly captures the decline of the Church fortunes.

Linda K. Taylor gives the lighting that certain slant of stifling winter afternoons in over-stuffed living rooms.

The play itself probably has too much in it: old age, social change, generational conflict, familial relations, the origins of art and the artist. It is not certain if it wants to be a comedy, a commentary, a tragedy or a testimonial.

It is exciting, however, to see a fragment of our world on stage and staged so well, once again, by the Concord Players.