‘Painting Churches’ at The Montgomery Playhouse and The City of Gaithersburg at The Arts Barn

It’s sheer joy watching three performers execute their craft with passion. Add in an incredibly-written, intelligent and thought-provoking narrative and a warm and intimate venue, and with The Montgomery Playhouse’s production of Tina Howe’s Painting Churches, you have an unforgettable evening for the most demanding theatergoer.

David Jones and Jane Squier Bruns. Photo by Scott D’Vileskis.
David Jones and Jane Squier Bruns. Photo by Scott D’Vileskis.

First, the setting. The Arts Barn in Kentlands is a great place to see a show. The theater space is small, but the audience is comfortable and drawn directly into the action onstage. The overall production quality is outstanding. David Jones’ set design is spare but perfectly implemented. Black walls offset by brilliantly white furnishings perfectly evoke the Boston mini-manse, home to the Church’s.

As they wind down their lives together, Gardner and Fanny Church plan a permanent move to their Cape Cod beach bungalow, necessitated by their dwindling financial resources and their inability to maintain their large home. That process of preparing to move helps create the essential conflict, and stage manager Anne Vandercock and her tech crew execute the black-out scene changes perfectly. You really do feel as though you’re watching the movers, while at the same time you anguish over the Church’s need to move. It’s obvious that Director Mary Beth Levrio found the perfect acting trio and tech team, and shared her vision and then let them go to work. You will not see a director’s heavy hand, which to me means she’s very talented.

A superior script, a warm and comfortable venue, and an artfully conceived set would be wasted if the individual performances in a family drama didn’t reach out and embrace the audience. In Painting Churches, the three actors do exactly that, and for the entire show.

David Jones, an award-winning regional performer, shows us once again how the power of a subtle, nuanced performance can captivate a room. As aging Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gardner Church, David gently introduces us to Gardner’s onset of dementia, a difficult performance for the most-capable performer. There are several moments throughout the show where Jones subtly shifts his character’s visage from a direct connection to his surroundings to a confused, distracted appearance using nothing but the look on his face. His character’s joy when he is with his wife and daughter is offset later in the show as he confronts the need to relocate to a more humble setting.

Jane Squier Bruns, David Jones, and Shanna Riddle Ridenour. Photo by Scott D’Vileskis.
Jane Squier Bruns, David Jones, and Shanna Riddle Ridenour. Photo by Scott D’Vileskis.

As the Gardner’s daughter Margaret (Mags), Shanna Ridenour is perfectly cast. A very successful painter working in New York City, Mags doesn’t get up to Boston to see her parents more than once a year. She loves returning home, though. Her plan is to convince her folks to do the one thing they’ve always avoided, to pose for a portrait. In the course of her few days visit, the challenge of painting her parent’s portrait is compounded by the discovery of her father’s deteriorating condition and her mother’s many sacrifices to provide for his well-being. Ms. Ridenour’s soliloquy as she describes a defining moment from her past is one the most intense and demanding emotional performances I’ve seen.

Finally, Fanny Sedgwick Church is played to absolute perfection by Jane Squier Bruns. Witty, tough, poignant and proud, Fanny faces the most difficult moments of her life as well as she can. She understands what’s happening, but that doesn’t mean she has to be happy about it. Fanny loves life’s finer things, and she ruminates over her past as a Beacon Hill high-society patron as she boxes up treasures to be auctioned or donated. Once a shopper in the best stores, Fanny is now relegated to browsing thrift store shelves for her outlandish hats. Ms. Bruns gives an incredibly moving performance, especially when directly confronted over the quality of care she provides for her beloved Gardner. Her laugh is like a fine wine, improved with age and appreciated at the most difficult moments.

The three performers converse casually in the same manner as any family ever has. None of the occasional cue line hesitation, the words flowed out, often overlapping and mixing with one another in the most realistic and believable manner. They have literally become the family that they play, a compliment meant in the most sincere manner.

Painting Churches is an actor’s show, a great script that left in the hands of a talented cast and crew makes a moving and emotional night of theater. In the hands of Director Mary Beth Levrio, David Jones, Jane Squier Bruns, and Shanna Ridenour, this is a not-to-be-missed production.

Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Painting Churches plays through November 22, 2015, at Montgomery Playhouse and the City of Gaithersburg performing at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn – 311 Kent Square Road, in Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets, call (301) 258-6394, or purchase them online.

Meet the Cast of ‘Painting Churches’ at Montgomery Playhouse: Part 1: David Jones.

Meet the Cast of ‘Painting Churches’ at Montgomery Playhouse: Part 2: Shanna Ridenour.

Meet the Cast of ‘Painting Churches’ at Montgomery Playhouse: Part 3: Jane Squier Bruns.

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