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Art, love and life, in the eye of the beholder

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JOCELYN NOVECK | March 7, 2012 09:21 AM EST | AP

NEW YORK — Few things in this world are more subjective than art. What's beautiful to me may, of course, be ugly as sin to you.

That's surely one reason that Tina Howe, in her rightfully admired 1983 play "Painting Churches," never allows the audience to see the portrait whose creation is the core of the play's action – a portrait of an elderly couple, the Churches, painted by their adult daughter.

Showing us that portrait might give it a kind of objective value.

What matters is not what we see, but what the characters see. But there seems something deeper yet in what Howe, whose play is currently being revived by the Keen Company at off-Broadway's Clurman Theatre, is doing with that painting.

Because the artwork also signifies a relationship. As the daughter tries to paint her aging parents, she is also learning what has become of them and their marriage. She doesn't like everything she sees. But in a relationship, as in art, nobody sees exactly the same thing.

To revive a play like "Painting Churches," a 1984 Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, one clearly needs a first-rate cast, and this one stars the terrific Kathleen Chalfant and the talented John Cunningham.

They play Gardner and Fanny Church, a wealthy Beacon Hill couple who have seen better days. Gardner, a Pulitzer-winning poet, is in mental decline, and Fanny is increasingly forced to be his caretaker.

They're preparing to move out of their Boston home, filled with silver and tchochkes and memories, to a small Cape Cod cottage to live out the rest of their days.

Their daughter, Mags, arrives from New York, ostensibly to help them pack, but really with a bigger project in mind: That portrait. It turns into more than she bargained for. While painting it, she learns about the fragility of her father's mental state, and also how her mother treats him.

"Your disdain really takes my breath away!" Mags shouts at her mother at one point, as the wife laughs at her husband's confusion and incontinence. "You're in a class by yourself when it comes to humiliation!"

But Mags is seeing only a slice of this marriage. There's also a good deal of love and loyalty – indeed, sexual passion, too, especially when Fanny recalls the exhilaration of sledding down a hill at night with her husband on top of her.

Chalfant somehow manages to combine haughtiness with innocence with cruelty with silliness – now THERE'S a Mom for you – and she's especially absorbing to watch in the second act, as she struggles to reconcile her memories of past romance with a more sobering present.

As Gardner, Cunningham is deeply touching. Even though Gardner often can't remember why he entered a room or even control the sheath of papers he's holding in his hands, he can also suddenly evoke the dapper suitor who won the young Fanny. We can see why she was seduced by his poetry, and we can see why he was seduced by her whimsy.

As Mags, Kate Turnbull has a tough job, sometimes needing to appear the most grounded of the three characters, but also given some highly dramatic moments which can easily escalate to overkill, especially at the end, as she desperately seeks her parents' approval of the artwork she has created.

Yet the play, directed here by Carl Forsman, ends with something of a revelation for the daughter. Watching her parents react to their portrait, she seems to realize that judging a relationship from afar is not so simple.

At its end, "Painting Churches" seems not a depressing story about the inevitability of aging, but a love story, with a little art thrown in for good measure.