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THEATER REVIEW: “Painting Churches” gets the thumbs-up

Artists should be better at seeing than the rest of us, but awareness of composition, color and light is a different animal from the willingness to pay attention to other people.

Scripps Ranch Theatre presents “Painting Churches,” Tina Howe’s poignant meditation on art, aging and family relationships, through Feb. 12. Robert May directs.

Portraitist Margaret Church (DeNae Steele), who has just been given a one-woman show at a prestigious New York gallery, goes to Boston to visit her aging parents. She plans to do more than just pass on the great news: she wants to paint a portrait of them for the show.

As it happens, the elder Churches are in the process of downsizing, moving from the Boston mansion to their tiny cottage on Cape Cod. “Mags” has offered help with the move in exchange for a sitting.

She is unprepared and largely unwilling to acknowledge what she finds there.

The Churches are Boston Brahmins. Mother Fanny (Jill Drexler), tart-tongued and vain, is a handsome woman with an eccentric but engaging personality.

Gardner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, still has flashes of his old charm but is sinking fast into doddering old age, with concomitant shuffling and memory loss.

He has been “writing a book” for years and is wont to strew papers all over the house. And, as Fanny points out to Mags, his prose makes no sense. Gardner is at his best when reciting the poetry of still-remembered Yeats or Dickinson or Frost.

Mags and her parents have been talking past each other for years. Fanny and Gardner seem to have been indulgent with their daughter from a distance, but to have regarded Mags’ art more as hobby than calling.

Mags has assumed things were fine at home and that Fanny has been exaggerating. In the second act, she will come to see the truth.

Howe, whose father was longtime CBS radio commentator Quincy Howe, has called “Painting Churches” semi-autobiographical: “All of it is true, but none of it happened.”

Drexler and Riendeau are spot-on in their characterizations and will seem utterly familiar to audience members who have observed parental decline.

Steele hasn’t quite settled into her role yet, though she is quite good in the second act.

This show requires a good deal of between-scenes prop shuffling, including the use of a noisy metal trolley to transport the heavy stuff. There may not be a solution, but it’s distracting, especially because it happens so often.

Still, strong performances and a good script make this worth seeing.

The details

“Painting Churches” plays through Feb. 12 at Scripps Ranch Theatre, 10455 Pomerado Road on the Alliant International University campus.

Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.

For tickets, call (858) 578-7728 or visit www.scrippsranchtheatre.org.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.