Sigmund Freud noted the painful necessity for individuals, if they are to develop, to become free of their parents’ authority. Freud’s observations seem relevant to Mags’s traumatic childhood experience of banishment from the table and the destruction of her composition of melted crayons. The distancing from her parents, who did not recognize what she considers to be her first masterpiece, went in tandem with the beginning of her development as an artist. By writing a drama treating the psychological dynamics at play among the Churches—their tensions, rivalries, shifting alliances, and rejoicings—Howe engages that recurrent subject in American theater going back to Eugene O’Neill, the nuclear family.
The subject is common to Howe’s other plays, as is her obsession with artists and art, and with the losses attendant upon time, especially death. In all her work she explores these subjects with humor while moving toward an epiphany, a moment of reconciliation or redemption. Because of the epiphanies, Howe speculates, her true mentors are not other playwrights, but the novelists Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Howe attributes audiences’ warm reception of Painting Churches to the “sheer fantasy” of the reconciliation at the play’s end: “In real life, we all know perfectly well there’s rarely that moment when our parents finally say, ‘You are a wonderful artist, and I admire your work.’”