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REVIEW: Painting Churches

 by Rebecca M. Alvin

By and large, the single most important relationship in anyone’s life is that with his/her mother, followed closely by one’s father. Likewise, full of anger, love, disappointment, and frustration, these relationships inspire some of the best dramatic expression. In Tina Howe’s 1984 play Painting Churches, the mother-daughter and father-daughter relationships are the entire focus. Set in a Boston apartment in the lofty Beacon Hill section, the story begins with Gardner (Gip Hoppe) and Fanny (Laura Esterman) Church preparing simultaneously for a much anticipated visit from their daughter and for their move to Cape Cod to live out their days in retirement. When daughter Mags (Naomi McDougall Jones) arrives, the first thing that is abundantly clear is that this is a family where no one listens to anyone else and everyone thinks they know the other better than they know themselves.

Gip Hoppe as Gardner Church in Painting Churches
Photo: Michael & Suz Karchmer

Mags is a successful portrait painter in New York, but she cannot get the respect from her parents she desperately craves. As many of us can attest, approval from the world around us means little without the approval of one’s parents. But just as Mags is perpetually frustrated by her parents’ kind-hearted, but somewhat patronizing understanding of her talents, she, too, views her parents through an inaccurate lens.

Painting Churches is about the almost universal mismatch between who we want our parents to be and who they really are, as well as our struggles to live up to who we think they want us to be. But even with a theme so relatable, there is a disconnect here. In part it is due to the play’s rhythm, which gets off to a slow start and doesn’t feel engaging until the second act. While technical aspects of the production and the cast are all competent and well-directed, the other part of the problem is in the lackluster performance of Jones, the very character we should be identifying with. Hoppe shines here as a Pulitzer Prize winner facing dementia after a lifetime devoted to intellectual and creative pursuits, and Esterman offers a quirky mother with a penchant for ostentatious hats and criticizing her daughter’s choices in life. The finest moment in the entire play is in the last few minutes, when we see between Gardner and Fanny the love that has kept them together and that will continue to make their lives bearable against the ravages of time and declining health.

Even with its weaknesses, Painting Churches is a provocative exploration of the relationship between parents and their children at that moment when the child is on the precipice of becoming caregiver in a painful but inevitable turning of the table.

Painting Churches is onstage at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT), 2357 Rte. 6, Wellfleet, Thursdays – Mondays through July 9. For tickets ($12 – $35) and information call 508.349.9428 or visit


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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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