Dallas — The regional premiere of Terrence McNally’s 2014 Tony-nominated Mothers and Sons opened this weekend at the Kalita Humphreys Theater as part of Uptown Players’ current season. This is the story of a woman who appears at the home of her late son’s beloved who is now married with child. Her visit is unexpected and suspect because of her past hostility over her son Andre’s homosexuality. McNally had given these characters life in another piece long before Mothers and Sons. Is it necessary to know this before one can understand and appreciate the play? No; this play needs no setup. But the connections between this and an earlier work are interesting.
On May 18, 1988, the Manhattan Theatre Club (MHC) presented an evening of 10- and 15-minute sketches around the theme of Urban Blight. MHC had asked 20 writers to construct something that reflected a view of what it was like to live in New York City. Urban Blight was a good title because during that period, Manhattan was grittier than it is today, literally and figuratively. One of the plays presented that evening was Andre’s Mother by Terrence McNally. (It was later translated into an hourlong teleplay with added characters.) He had decided to write about the devastation the AIDS crisis was having on families and relationships. The setting was a remembrance for Andre that was held in Central Park. There were four characters—Andre’s surviving beloved and his father and sister, and Andre’s mother. She never spoke and the audience never knew her name.
Twenty years later in Mothers and Sons, McNally checks in with the characters from Andre’s Mother to reveal how each has fared since Andre’s death. After an eight-year mourning period, Andre’s surviving partner, Cal Porter (Gregory Lush), married Will Ogden (Kevin Moore) and they have a son, Bud Ogden-Porter (Alex Prejean). (Cal’s father and sister are not characters in this play and are only mentioned.) Andre’s mother, Katherine Gerard (Marjorie Hayes) is in the play and this time, she has found her voice.
Director Bruce R. Coleman approaches the play through inquiry, asking how those that survived the ’80s and ’90s AIDS crisis managed to do so. He is convinced that regardless of how people survived, they did so with and through love.
As the play begins, Will and Bud are not home yet. Cal and Katherine are looking out of the window of Cal and Will’s posh Central Park West apartment (an exquisite set designed by Kevin Brown) at the area of Central Park where Andre’s remembrance was held.
Katherine has invited herself to Cal’s home but is rigidly determined to be uncomfortable the entire visit, beginning with her refusal to remove her coat. She keeps saying she cannot stay but she never leaves. It becomes clear very early on that Katherine was disdainful of her son’s gayness, insisting that when he left Dallas, he was not gay. She did not come to visit him when he was dying nor did she see his best performance as Hamlet. The last 20 years seem to have done little if anything to refine her abrasiveness. Cal manages to be warm and welcoming, pushing back when she snipes, but always remaining respectful.
When Will and Bud enter, Will is perturbed by her intrusion into what was intended to be a family evening of tree decorating. He has heard enough stories about Andre’s mother and has no interest in interacting with her at all. He is also a little tired of the specter of Andre once again hovering over his life and his marriage to Cal. It is Will that asks Katherine the question Cal could not ask and Katherine could not answer: why are you here?
There is a fifteen-year age difference between Will and Cal. This play shows us a span of generations: an older woman from the era of whispers and hiding, a gay man from the 80s and 90s, a gay man that missed all of that, and a young child that at age 6 has learned about AIDS in school.
This is a fine cast. Lush and Moore deliver very strong, clean work. Their physical choices are efficient and effective. Lush exhibits beautiful range and vulnerability within this role as Cal. Prejean is perfect as Bud, the symbol of optimism.
The role of the mother is layered and all about timing. She has to remain tight, simmering for about an hour, reaching a full boil during the last third of the play. So much of who she is hides in the spaces between the lines, the silences. On opening night, once Hayes settled in and found her pacing, she was able to illuminate Katherine’s truth—that the real tragedy was not her gay son, but her inability to love unconditionally and to change.
This is not a sad story. It is a story about the healing properties of love.