Tina Howe Dies: ‘Painting Churches’, ‘Coastal Disturbances’ Playwright Was 85

Tina Howe, the celebrated playwright whose works included the oft-staged Painting Churches and Coastal Disturbances, died yesterday of natural causes after a short illness due to complications from a hip fracture sustained in a recent fall. The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist was 85.

Her death was announced by her longtime agent Patrick Herold.

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A New York City native, Howe attended Sarah Lawrence College, Teacher’s College at Columbia University and Chicago Teachers College and studied philosophy at Sorbonne University in Paris before her mainstream stage breakthrough in 1981 with the production of Painting Churches at Second Stage Off Broadway. Set in the Beacon Hill area of Boston, the play, about the relationship between an artist and her aging parents, was a major success, winning an Obie Award, moving to Broadway in 1983 and becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Howe had actually made her professional New York stage debut 11 years prior to Painting Churches, with an Off Broadway production of The Nest, but it was Painting Churches that secured her place among her generation’s most successful dramatists.

Howe reunited with Second Stage in 1986 for a production of her play Coastal Disturbances, a romantic drama set on a beach in Massachusetts. The play proved yet another success, and moved to Broadway in 1987, winning the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play and earning Howe, her director Carole Rothman and their young star, Annette Bening, Tony Award nominations.

In 1997, Lincoln Center Theater produced the New York premiere of Howe’s play Pride’s Crossing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, following the play’s original run at the Old Globe. That play, too, became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and went on to win the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play that season.

In addition to Painting Churches, Coastal Disturbances and Pride’s Crossing, Howe’s most produced plays include Birth and After Birth, Museum, The Art of Dining and Approaching Zanzibar. Her works premiered at the Public Theater, the Kennedy Center, Second Stage, The Old Globe, Lincoln Center Theater, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Atlantic Theater Company, and Primary Stages, and have been translated and produced abroad.

Among her other awards and accolades are a Rockefeller Grant, two N.E.A. Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, the Sidney Kingsley Award, two honorary degrees, the William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theatre, a Lilly Award for Lifetime Achievement and, most recently, PEN’s Master American Playwright award in 2015.

Her last collection of short one-act plays, Where Women Go, was published in 2023. She is also the subject of the book Howe in an Hour edited by Judith Barlow.

Howe served on the council of the Dramatists Guild since 1990, and taught at New York University, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon and UCLA before becoming Visiting Professor at Hunter College in 1990, then going on to launch the Rita and Burton Goldberg MFA in Playwriting in 2010 as Playwright-in-Residence.

Howe, who was married to her husband Norman Levy for 61 years, is survived by children Eben Levy (and wife Cate Latting) and Dara Rebell (and husband Joshua Rebell); and three grandchildren.

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