The title of the play "Painting Churches," onstage for a two-week run at O'Connell & Company, refers not to putting a fresh coat on houses of worship but to seeing with fresh eyes family members who have changed with time. It is like being an artist who wants to capture her subject's essence on canvass, and has to get to know the person first.
It is a process that can be joyful, illuminating or, when the change is unsought and unwanted, painful. Sometimes, it can be all those things, a sleight-of-hand well-practiced by playwright Tine Howe, who with "Painting Churches" has produced a Pulitzer Prize-nominated comedy about Alzheimer's.
The members of the Church family -- Fanny; her husband, Gardner, and their daughter, Mags -- are in the early stages of adjustment to the illness. The effects of the Alzheimer's are just beginning to show -- not all the time, but enough to know there is something wrong. Howe is so subtle in her revelations that at times we wonder which of the older Churches is the one who is afflicted. Is it Gardner, the famous poet who can't seem to finish his latest book, or Fanny, his supportive wife, who at one point forgets that she does't have her dress on?
We know it isn't Mags, the adult daughter who comes to help her parents move to a smaller, more manageable cottage. An artistic only-child, she is home for the first time in a year, and as soon as she walks in the door she reverts to her traditional role, brimming with brittle self-interest, trying to make herself the center of her parents' attention. Sure, she will help them pack up the house, but her real reason for coming is to paint her parents' portrait.
Sara Kow-Falcone plays her with well-balanced frustration, as a young woman who loves her parents but expects them still to love her more. She can't fathom why her mother and father aren't totally taken with her offer to paint them. After all, her career is taking off. She teaches art and will have a one-woman show at a famous gallery.
"That's nice dear," pretty much sums up her parents' reaction.
Fanny Church, fully realized with energy and force by Tina Rausa, has far more pressing things on her mind. Her cognitive lapses are not those of the patient, they are those of an overstressed caregiver. It is Gardner, portrayed with lovable absent-mindedness by Jack Horohoe, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's -- a word that is ever said on stage.
Gardner is not even aware of what exactly is happening to him. He can remember poetry he memorized years ago, but not the answers to questions he asked two minutes before. Fanny is in coping mode. She is putting away her life, donating things of value, keeping a few items for her own memories, and not sharing what she is feeling with anyone else. Much of the show's humor comes from the contortions she performs to maintain a semblance of the old normal, and to keep the new reality a bay.
"Painting Churches" was written in the early 1980s, at a time when people didn't talk about Alzheimer's. There were far fewer people in the ranks of the very old, and if they had trouble they were called forgetful, or senile.
But these days, thanks to better health care, less smoking and more awareness, almost everyone has a personal Alzheimer's story. And nothing is more personal than an illness that robs its sufferers of their memories and of all they have done in their lives, and that forces their loved ones to see them disappear before their eyes.
Mags goes through with her plan to paint her parents' portrait, but by the time the show is over it has taken on a different and deeper meaning. And, as often happens in families dealing with forms of dementia, it even brings them closer together.
Director Lucas Lloyd gets fine performances from all three cast members, with Rausa and Horohoe showing genuine chemistry as the long-married couple whose affection continues to overcome day-to-day irritations. Kow-Falcone pulls off a believable transformation for Mags and together they provide at least a small sense of triumph over the inevitable.
One small family comes to terms with Alzheimer's in a touching comedy of aging. Presented by O'Connell & Company on the Park School stage, 4625 Harlem Road, through Nov. 19. Tickets: 848-0800 or at oconnellandcompany.com