by Michael Bowen
Kate Vander Wende started this," says Bob Welch, referring to Interplayers' marketing director and her idea of replacing the previously scheduled season-opening show with Tina Howe's Painting Churches -- and of inviting Interplayers founders Welch and his wife Joan to perform in it. After the Welches attended several meetings with Vander Wende and Artistic Director Nike Imoru, says Bob, he "knew that the four of us were very compatible. We had lots of conversations with Kate and Nike -- their motives for doing this, their ideas of how a theater functioned. Kate had a sense that history had been lost."
After the Welches had been more or less barred from the theater for the three years of the Robin Stanton era, Interplayers' new leadership wanted to bring the Welches back. Asked what it's like returning as Fanny and Gardner Church, the roles they played in 1986, Bob jokes that "the makeup is a lot easier now."
But what about the theater's future in general? Joan Welch answers immediately: "Selling subscriptions is the key to the whole thing."
Bob adds that "We had the largest subscription base in the area -- it may now be the smallest." The Welches loved the work, but eventually felt they had to retire. "We were working 12-, 14-hour days, seven days a week," he says, "and then six days a week, and then we had to cut it to five."
Painting Churches is, in part, about the difficulty of watching the people you love and respect go into decline. But it's also about the joy of recollecting the moments when they were happiest and at their best.
For better and for worse, watching Interplayers' current production (through Sept. 25), works along the same lines.
Bob and Joan Welch return to play Fanny and Gardner Church. He's a famous poet, she's overseeing their move from the longtime family home into a smaller cottage, and their daughter, an artist, announces that she'd like to paint their portrait.
Stephanie Mills' set establishes New England tradition but doesn't take advantage of Howe's emphasis on the Church-like living room's special quality of light. Neither does Dan Heggem's lighting scheme, which neglects opportunities for isolating characters in encroaching darkness.
As their daughter Mags, Libby Skala isn't excited enough when her character announces a big success, isn't angry enough during arguments with her mother and isn't caught up enough in her creative world to convince us that she looks at but doesn't really see her parents.
Director Nike Imoru attempts, without success, to incorporate the scene changes into the action. As stagehands (dressed like moving men) remove more and more of the Churches' belongings, the barrenness of the family's shared emotions become more and more evident. But with two guys taking their sweet time in shuffling a few boxes around, the scene changes suffocate the pacing.
That's not the main reason, though, that this production has bloated to a three-hour running time. For the uncomfortable truth about this show is that Joan Welch has to carry a script throughout. Having to refer to the text constantly produces a self-conscious, glad-I'm-getting-through-this quality to too many of her moments as Fanny Church. It ruins the pacing and throws off her fellow actors.
She's not supposed to be the one who's forgetful; Gardner is. And yet at one point, Bob had to whisper to Joan what their next move needed to be. At another, Fanny condescends to Gardner, coaxing him with "You remember, don't you?" -- and Joan had to refer to her script to recall what to say.
The only real highlight of this production is Bob Welch's performance as an old man with an unspoken affliction: Alzheimer's. He plays on the floor like a sad little boy; he looks at familiar objects as if he'd never seen them before, then walks around them in half-circles of avoidance; he throws a self-destructive tantrum, both comic and sad; in counterpoint to one of Fanny's speeches about a relative who threw himself off a building, he yearns for the comfort of death. Bob Welch is a revelation in the role.
Quit while you're ahead, they say; finish up while you're still in your prime. But why? So the rest of us should never have to witness the discomfort of a talent in decline? The rest of us should be so lucky, to find a such a passion.
The question is whether people ought to pay 20 bucks to watch an old pro indulge her love of the theater one last time. The answer depends on how willingly you suspend your disbelief.
If you want to be absorbed the way we are at a movie, you'll be irritated by all the times when Joan Welch seems to be engaging her fellow actors genuinely, then has to dart her eyes down to her script -- and without always finding her place even then.
But if you can compartmentalize your response, keeping a dual eye both on the play and on how the play is being performed, Joan Welch's slow fade is a reminder of how, for 20 years and more, she gave her heart and soul.
It takes resourcefulness to do what you love and display it in public, even when you're not doing it well anymore. While for the rest of us it's not required viewing, it is good to remember that actors keep on showing us portraits of ourselves -- even when we don't want to see them.
Painting Churches -- a good script, here given a poor production -- ends with the Welches slow-dancing. This particular dance isn't worth seeing. But it's worth a reflection: The Welches, Joan and Bob, will still be dancing among us long after this show has closed.
Publication date: 09/16/04