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"Painting Churches," the Tina Howe play in production at the Colonial Players of Annapolis, has nothing to do with the decoration of religious structures.

Rather, it is the story of the Church family: Gardiner, a distinguished old poet on the cusp of senility; Fanny, his bitter, funny, devoted wife, and Mags, their portrait-painting daughter.

Complicated emotions intensify and spill over as Mags goes to herparents on an infrequent visit just as they are moving out of their old house to take up a residence at a retirement cottage on Cape Cod.

Despite her whimsical appeal, Fanny Church is a tough character to take as she guzzles booze, nags Mags about her hair, profession and lifestyle and complains incessantly about the indignities she faces as her husband's faculties decline.

It is Mags who engages our sympathy as she defends her father's sanity, engages him admirably and invokes a litany of childhood memories that will not get Fanny nominated as "Mother of the Year."

But our understanding of Fanny grows and it's her honest anger that turns us around. She lets Mags have it in a big way, exposing the element of superficiality in her daughter's humanitarian impulses. "Turn your easel," she cries to the artist. "Really see us! This is it for Daddy and me. Finita la commedia!"

Warmly and honestly, the strength of the family triad is reaffirmed by the parental portrait Mags has been painting throughout the play. Their acceptance of her craft mirrors their re-acceptance of their daughter and each other.

This is a beautifully acted production. Tom Boynton is superb as the doddering poet. As feeble and frightened as his character is, Boynton beautifully conveys that touch of old Yankee hell that must have made Gardiner such a popular poet. His bursts of profanity -- great pace-changers throughout -- are delivered with meticulous comic timing. Down to the quivering of the old man's hands,Boynton's immersion in the role is total.

Fanny is tough to take and even tougher to act, but Beth Whaley faithfully follows her everystep of the way. It's not easy to gain sympathy cussing out a more attractive character than oneself, but that's exactly what she's able to do.

Whaley also knows how to get a laugh; the interlude where she and Boynton re-enact "American Gothic," "The Pieta" and "The Birthof Adam" is a riot.

Kathleen Ruttum does nicely as Mags, conveying both her warmth and her need for cool distance from her parents. And with Gardiner's and Fanny's ultimate acceptance of her work, she becomes both a validated adult artist and a reassured little girl before our eyes.

I confess to liking the actors much better than the play itself. Act I took a great deal of time to pick up steam and the repetition built into the script drove me crazy. "What a lovely hat." "What a heavy tray." The saltines, the zipper, the cocktail time -- all are endlessly overworked. Enough already.

In the final analysis, the play works, but there are some anxious structural moments in getting us there.

All technical aspects of "Painting Churches" are fine, though I wonder who it is that's typing off-stage in the study when Gardiner and Fanny are both in the living room.

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