Something about the Banyan Theater Company's opening show, "Painting Churches," makes me think it will be appreciably better after the cast gets a few more performances under its belt.
As it stood on opening night, there was so little connection demonstrated between aging parents Fanny and Gardner Church and their emerging-artist daughter Mags that one had to wonder why Mags would even bother showing up to help them move from their stately Boston townhouse to their cottage "the size of a handkerchief" on Cape Cod, let alone want them to sit for a portrait.
At the outset, each of these characters seems locked in his or her own self-absorbed world view. When Jenny Aldrich as Fanny sits in the living room wrapping the family heirloom silver service in newspaper and hollering to her unresponsive husband (Don Walker) in the next room, it's evident that parallel tracks are running through their lives. Enter Mags, who shows up toting a huge easel and immediately embarks on an incessant monologue to which neither parent listens or responds. When Fanny actually notices Mags, she starts in on the kind of unhappy critique every grown child loves to hear: you're wasting your life, why's your hair that color, you could be so attractive if you chose better clothing...
What's interesting is that, as depicted by Olivia Williamson, Mags doesn't come off as particularly noteworthy in falling short of parental expectations. Her hair's not dyed flaming red. She doesn't dress weirdly. She's graduated from one of the better-known art schools, Pratt, and is on the edge of becoming a successful portraitist.
So why's everyone so upset? Well, the answer lies in the shifting relationships between Mags and her parents, whose health, particularly that of the poet Gardner, is deteriorating. Gardner is more than simply self-absorbed; he's slipping past aging forgetfulness and into dementia. Fanny, regarded as the rock in the relationship, has to admit her own vulnerability and fears about old age and, especially, its impact on her marriage.
Aldrich and Walker, married in real life, bring a comfortable familiarity to Fanny and Gardner's circumstances that isn't reflected in the pair's relationship to their daughter. Prickly though such adult relationships can be, there's too much of a sense that Mags is a stranger to Gardner and Fanny, not just a mildly-estranged daughter.
Part of that seems to me to come from Melliss Kenworthy's staging and direction. Williamson keeps her body and her sometimes strident delivery turned more to the audience than to Aldrich and Walker, making the production feel much more like actors on a stage than human beings interacting.
Things get better in the second act, when the stress of sorting belongings tips Gardner briefly into fury when Fanny starts emptying papers and books from his study, and when the three start to interact in a more genuine way. The beauty of the playwright's language really shines through once the volume of the conflict gets turned down a bit.
PAINTING CHURCHES. By Tina Howe. Directed by Melliss Kenworthy. Reviewed June 27 at Banyan Theater Company. Through July 14 in the Cook Theatre, FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets $28.50. Subscriptions are $52-$70. 351-2808; banyantheatercompany.com