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‘Painting’ can get messy

Gardner (Burdette Parks), left, and Fanny (Fran Yardley) look at a portrait of themselves during the play “Painting Churches” from playwright Tina Howe. (Photo provided)

SARANAC LAKE — There’s a reason why some people don’t like to go back home.

The Adirondack Stage Rats will perform Tina Howe’s “Painting Churches” at BluSeed Studios Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The play follows Mags (Donna Moschek), a successful New York-based artist who’s gone back to Boston to visit her parents Fanny (Fran Yardley) and Gardner (Yardley’s real-life husband Burdette Parks) with the intention of painting them.

“It’s a play about family,” said director Jordan Hornstein. “It’s about aging, and recognizing the change, especially between parents and children. Then you’re dealing with artists, and being recognized as an artist by the people who are most important to you.”

Fanny is a stuck-up, old-money New Englander, but she’s also not above being flat-out wacky on occasion. She’ll comment on how she doesn’t like her daughter’s pseudo-hippie lifestyle, but then she’ll walk aimlessly around her living room with a dress stuck over her head or make childish games out of packing away books.

Burdette Parks as Gardner Church is enamored of a box of saltines in the Adirondack Stage Rats’ production of “Painting Churches” at BluSeed Studios in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

“It’s fun as the actor to do that, and I think part of the reason my character does that is to get my husband, who’s beginning to lose his mind, to play along and get things done,” Yardley said.

Gardner, a once-great poet, is the type of academic who has received presidential medals and signed books from Robert Frost. However, in his old age, he can’t seem to write anything new, so now he works on an endless manuscript analyzing other people’s poems.

Mags has found success in her life as an artist, but she wants her parents to recognize that. They see her work and occasionally compliment it, but it comes off more like a parent giving a child a pat on the head than real appreciation.

“I think everybody has experienced that,” Moschek said. “The family is so wealthy, and there is so much difference between them and me, but that part of it is so relatable. There’s at least one thing that your mom says that makes you feel like you’re 13 again, and you can’t usually get over that.”

The play touches on tragic realities that many people experience, like the fading of a loved one.

Gardner (Burdette Parks), right, helps his wife Fanny (Fran Yardley) into a dress during Tina Howe’s “Painting Churches.” (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

Though he’s becoming forgetful, Gardner is able to recite long poems from memory. He’ll casually spout off some Yeats like it’s no big deal. But then there’s the other side to his character. Often times, Parks is physically comical in the background while the other two actors converse. He might be falling in love with a package of Premium brand saltines or trying to put his blazer on over his overcoat. This will go on for minutes at a time, and Parks just needs to keep filling that space with visual gags.

“It comes with a lot of rehearsal,” he said. “As you go through the rehearsal, you just find one little thing at a time and you keep adding them together. We’ve all known people in our lives that have started that journey. I try to do it with compassion.”

Parks delivers an at times frightening performance. Toward the start of the play, Fanny doesn’t believe that the person who made her hat also made Gardner’s bathrobe, so he shouts at her to read the label. It’s a trivial argument, but the discourse gives a clue as to how intense Parks’ character will get later in the show.

That’s the beauty of this play. The first half gives you little snippets of how the family actually is, but it’s delivered in this all-in-good-fun package. By the second half, you see the full disintegration of these characters.

“It’s a play that combines the poignant and the comical,” Hornstein said. “I think ever since Anton Chekhov, this idea that comedy and tragedy are close and can’t be separated has been prevalent. It’s more realistic. We can laugh through a good comedy, but we also recognize that it’s an exaggeration of certain aspects of human behavior. And tragedy, of course, brings us into very dark areas. This show comes pretty close to the truth.”

Donna Moschek plays artist Margaret “Mags” Church in “Painting Churches.” (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

If you go …

What: Tina Howe’s “Painting Churches.”

Where: BluSeed Studios, 24 Cedar St., Saranac Lake

When: March 6 and 7 at 7 p.m., March 8 at 5 p.m.

How much: Suggested donation of $10.

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