New York artist Mags Church has returned home to Boston to help her aging parents pack and move, with plans to paint one final twilight-years portrait of them while she's at it. She's also hoping to come to terms with them before it's too late—her once-brilliant poet father has grown increasingly senile, and her mother, hiding her despair behind flippancy, seems to give the whole thing only blithe consideration.
Playwright Tina Howe's script of Painting Churches dances a fine line between comedy and pathos and requires a sure hand to bring together the two disparate emotions fighting for onstage domination. Focus on the comedy, and the play careens off-course into crass jokes at the expense of Alzheimer's patients. Focus on the drama, and the soggy Lifetime Channel limitations begin to show through. But blend them together evenly, and we see real life emerge, with all of its horrifying and humorous complications.
That delicate duality— and how easily it can be mishandled—is abundantly clear in this unfortunate production. Director Jill Forbath Roden's jokey tone may make the seriousness beneath the one-liners more palatable to an audience that wants a good time, but the candy coating abandons the playwright's less-than-smiley-face intent.
Then there is the cast: underrehearsed or just incompetent for the task at hand, their slow, slow, slow delivery of Howe's quick-witted dialogue eventually undermines the whole production. You're never sure if they're even going to get their next line out, and that nerve-racking anticipation makes it impossible to keep yourself from drifting out of the play.
As a result, you'd never guess that Howe is the critical darling she really is—or that she has a damn thing worth saying.
Painting Churches at the Huntington Beach Playhouse, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 375-0696. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through April 2. $11-$15.