Front Row Center

By Michael Warren

Painting Churches
By Tina Howe
Directed By Peggy Lord Chilton


front rowThis play received considerable acclaim on its off-Broadway debut, and was subsequently nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982. I found this hard to understand, as there are some intrinsic problems with the structure of the play, and these problems make the play difficult for both actors and audience. The play concerns the relationship between an artist daughter and her aging parents, who are packing up and leaving their Boston townhouse (which they can no longer afford) to go to a lonely retirement by the ocean. The daughter wants to paint her parents’ portrait in the midst of all the chaos of moving furniture and packing boxes.

The entire first act is devoted to setting up this unlikely scenario. There are some humorous lines as we get to know the ditsy mother “Fanny Church” and her abstracted husband “Gardner Church” who used to be a famous poet. Now he just potters around and hides in his study, writing a book of poetry criticism which will never be published. The tension between mother and daughter is hinted at, but is painfully slow to develop. The actors do their best with the material, and I congratulate Peggy Lord Chilton who took on the role of Fanny at very short notice. Peggy is a natural comedian and she makes the most of the opportunity to play the crazy old lady. She wears strange hats and puts up with her poetic husband. Perhaps being a bit loony herself is the only way she can put up with him.

David Wharff is sweet and lovable as the somewhat ga-ga Gardner, wandering in and out of his study, losing papers as he goes. David is a newcomer to LLT, and has considerable theatrical experience, so I look forward to seeing him in more dramatic roles. One of the features of the play is his recitation, at odd and unexpected moments, of some famous and very beautiful poems. I felt that they should have been recited with more feeling, but possibly that would have been out of character.

Tina Leonard has the most awkward part as daughter “Margaret,” the portrait painter. She doesn’t help much with the packing, and is preoccupied with getting her parents’ approval that she actually is an artist and has real talent. She has some long speeches about how her mother messed up her first one-woman exhibition, and destroyed her childhood melted crayon masterpiece. Tina did well in the part, though her pain and frustration should have come through with more explicit anger. When the portrait of her parents is finally unveiled, she showed genuine emotion at the climax of the play, and overall I appreciated her performance in a difficult role.

On the whole, this was a mixed beginning to the season. The play is billed as a comedy-drama, but it’s not really a comedy nor is it sufficiently dramatic. Peggy Lord Chilton and her cast worked hard to entertain us, and I admired the original set with special lighting effects. I should also mention the cameo performance of “Toots,” the parakeet who recited Gray’s Elegy remarkably well. Congratulations to Stage Manager Beth Leitch, Assistant Stage Manager Debra Bowers, and all the backstage crew who did such a good job. They had to haul all the furniture off the stage during the show, and then put it back again for the next show. A backbreaking performance!

michael warren




Column: Front Row Center




Michael Warren grew up in London, England and lived on Baker Street very close to where Sherlock Holmes hung out his shingle. He graduated with an Honors degree in Mathematics from King’s College, Cambridge, which no doubt helps him to balance his check book. While a student, he edited a humorous magazine entitled “ffobia” which was widely circulated amongst his friends.
Michael moved to Ajijic in 2000. Since moving to Mexico, Michael has forgotten almost all his mathematics, and has taught English to Mexican students, assisted in promoting musical events, helped to found the Open Circle group, and published his book of poems “A Particular Blue.” In short, he has found happiness. He has appeared onstage in nine plays at the Lakeside Little Theatre.  For the last ten years, he has been writing the theater reviews for El Ojo Del Lago under the byline “Front Row Center.”

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