Report From New York: Mothers And Sons Charts Changes In How We View The AIDS Crisis

Bobby Steggert, Frederick Weller, Grayson Taylor and Tyne Daly share another uncomfortable moment in Terrence McNally's Mother And Sons / Photo by Joan Marcus

Bobby Steggert, Frederick Weller, Grayson Taylor and Tyne Daly share another uncomfortable moment in Terrence McNally’s Mother And Sons / Photo by Joan Marcus

We’re back from our semi-annual trip to New York to scout out productions you might want to see (or not), shows that might tour South Florida and scripts that might be worth reviving in our regional theaters. We will publish them over the next few weeks before the Tony Awards, interspersed among our local reviews and features. Three other shows that produced Tony nominations (The Glass Menagerie, A Night With Janis Joplin and A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder, which is still running) were reviewed by us in passing a few weeks ago in an article at http://tinyurl.com/omrov6m

See the list of previously reviewed shows at the bottom of the story, including The Bridges of Madison County and All The Way. Other reviews are coming of Violet, Heathers the Musical and Satchmo at the Waldorf.

Programming note: We’ll be Facebook posting at Florida Theater On Stage and tweeting at @fltheateronsta live during the Tony Awards. Join us in the conversation June 8.

By Bill Hirschman

History, we thought, is what happened to our great-grandparents. Remote. Antiseptic. Bloodless.

But as Boomers slip into senior status, we discover History for upcoming generations now summons up for us vibrant sensory details, powerful emotions and particular faces.

So, yes, Terrence McNally’s drama Mothers and Sons is a domestic drama examining the chasm that AIDS opened when already troubled families were forced to face the sexuality of a loved one. But the play also shines a spotlight on that generational shift in perceptions over time. It makes observations that could only be chronicled by someone like the 75-year-old McNally who lived through that chapter of History.

In a key scene, a thirty-ish man tells a visiting doyenne that the height of the AIDS crisis, while terrible, only transcends abstract History for him because he can see the persisting emotional damage that it wreaked on his 50-ish husband, who lost a lover and uncounted friends to the plague 20 years earlier.

The family dysfunction, the generational aspect, the gay theme and the insightful affecting script guarantee this play a slot in somebody’s 2015-2016 season in South Florida.

The current production at the John Golden Theatre also provides a priceless acting role for Tyne Daly. She gives another finely-tuned performance marked by droll and tight-lipped restraint that poorly conceals a lifetime of pains, disappointments and anger. So while the drama will play locally, catch Daly soon if you’re in New York; the grosses are bafflingly low, so it may not survive past the Tony Awards.

The play opens on a well-appointed apartment on the Upper West Side. A handsome middle-aged man and an older matron wrapped in a mink coat like armor are staring out at a view of Central Park. They are extremely uncomfortable with where they are and in being in each other’s company, although we don’t know why. Piece by piece, McNally doles out bits of information that eventually reveal a complete picture without dumping exposition like bowling balls.

Cal (Frederick Weller) is a successful money manager who had a passionate six-year relationship with Andre, the son of the woman, Katharine (Daly). But Andre died of AIDS 20 years ago and other than attending a memorial, they have had virtually no contact.

Nine years after Andre’s death, Cal fell in love with Will (Bobby Steggert), a writer 15 years his junior. The two married and have a 6-year-old son, Bud (Grayson Taylor).

With no warning after a two-decade silence, Katharine has arrived ostensibly to return Andre’s diary that Cal had sent her – a volume neither has read. Katharine is a New York suburbanite who had moved with her husband to Dallas where she raised Andre. A key triumph of McNally, Daly and director Sheryl Kaller is that while their Katharine simply cannot comprehend something as distasteful and alien as homosexuality, she is not a saliva-slobbering hate-mongering bigot – just a hardened representative of the mainstream mindset of a certain period.

Recently widowed by a husband she didn’t love and facing a bleak sere life ahead, Katharine is really here to find someone to blame for her son’s death and even for his “turning gay.” McNally wisely does not blame her coldness for either situation, but clearly her remoteness contributed to Andre’s leaving home – something she subconsciously suspects but will not admit to herself.

As she and Cal wrestle with Andre’s death and sexuality, Katharine must face that the warm and nurturing life that Cal, Will and Bud have built is precisely what she never had, likely due to her own faults.

There’s a telling moment when Katharine accuses Cal of giving Andre AIDS. Cal has to tell her, with some pain, that Andre contracted the virus when he was unfaithful to Cal.

Other scenes depict the evolution of the attitudes of men in late middle age and older who have had to come terms with the tragedy. Katharine says if she ever discovered who infected Andre, she’d kill him. But Cal recalls that the desire for revenge was dwarfed by the ubiquitous tragedy:

“I was in enough pain of my own. Andre was dying, I couldn’t save him. Everyone was dying. I couldn’t save any of them. Nothing could. Something was killing us. Something ugly. Everyone talked about it but no one did anything. What would killing one another have accomplished? There was so much fear and anger in the face of so much death and no one was helping us. There wasn’t time to hate. We learned to help each other, help each other in ways we never had before. It was the first time I ever felt a part of something, a community.”

The generation gap is underscored by Will, who sees it through his husband’s eyes and through his own. He tells Katharine:

“I try to imagine what those years were like for him and Andre but I don’t get very far. Maybe I don’t want to. The mind shuts down – or the capacity to care. It’s one way of dealing with it…. ‘What Happened to Gay Men in the Final Decades of the 20th Century.’ First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote. People will shake their heads and say ‘What a terrible thing, how sad.’ It’s already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away”

Several reviewers have suggested that the play is about forgiveness and hope enabled by the passage of time and changing attitudes. Well, the play may be about it, but McNally commendably rejects a cheap resolution. Cal finds some limited measure of understanding if not forgiveness for Katharine, but it’s hardly total. And Katharine doesn’t lose a whit of her homophobia so much as realizes that it – and her other failings – have cost her precisely what Cal, Bud and Will have. There’s a curtain-ending embrace, but it’s only a mutual recognition of their mutual loss. Katharine’s not joining PFLAG.

If there’s hope in the play, it’s the portrayal of a present that could not be predicted two decades ago. The marriage of two men and their fatherhood of a young boy is treated here as a grudgingly-accepted norm. Mothers and Sons acknowledges that society still has a very long ways to evolve yet – Katharine is proof of that. But as Bud and Cal point out, the entire idea of gay marriage anywhere was a pipe dream not too long ago.

For all the drama, McNally always infuses his plays with humor. When Katharine implies that Cal made her son gay, she insists, “Andre wasn’t gay when he came to New York,” a line of ridiculous self-delusion that the audience has to giggle at.

Even funnier is Katharine’s growing increasingly aghast as Will answers her question about which of the men is Bud’s biological father. Will answers matter of factly, “We used my sperm – we thought it would be healthier, me being younger –and the eggs of an anonymous donor. After the magic of the embryo happened in the Petrie Dish, our lesbian friend Roberta carried Bud to term….” That last bit of info is too much for Katharine and her stoicism collapses into downright shock.

Daly’s Tony-nominated work is brilliant. Certainly, she has been delivering that look of askance rebuke, clipped acidic retort and general unease in her skin all the way back to playing Dirty Harry’s doomed partner in 1976. But that’s like saying you’ve seen LeBron James play basketball before. She never ever weakens in her portrayal of an emotionally distant, unforgiving woman who seeks no pity for her loveless life.

Weller is a veteran theater actor (Take Me Out among others) as well as a recognizable TV figure (USA’s In Plain Sight). He spends the first half of the play inexplicably talking and acting as if he’s stoned. Perhaps that’s because he is stunned by Katharine’s appearance and overwhelmed by the memories she revitalizes, but it’s a weird, weird choice. Eventually, either he eases up on that mode or the audience gets used to it. In either case, Weller is always credible because of his ability to inhabit the role. He’s especially effective portraying someone who has worked through a great deal of anger and found a measure of not peace, but balance.

Steggert, who made a splash in the revival of Ragtime, strikes precisely the right mix of polite affability to a guest and profound wariness at the angst that Katharine’s visit might create in Cal. His Will is the most “whole” of the trio.

Another opportunity to reexamine the changing perceptions will occur May 25 when HBO begins airing a star-studded film of Larry Kramer’s landmark AIDS play, The Normal Heart. Given reactions to the 2011 Broadway revival, it will be fascinating to see how different generations view this unvarnished accusation written in the heat of the moment in 1985. Likely one reaction will be from young people gay, and straight, who will be dumbfounded that society and its alleged public servant, the government, could so callously and inhumanely ignore what was happening, even accounting for the homophobia. Older viewers, of course, will have no trouble at all.

For tickets, click here.

To see many photos and videos, visit:
http://www.mothersandsonsbroadway.com/

To read our other reviews of New York shows:

The Bridges Of Madison County: click here

All The Way: click here.

A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder, The Glass Menagerie and A Night With Janis Joplin: http://tinyurl.com/omrov6m

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One Response to Report From New York: Mothers And Sons Charts Changes In How We View The AIDS Crisis

  1. Roy Dicks says:

    I totally agree with you Bill on all accounts. I saw the show two weeks ago and Daly’s performance was definitely Tony worthy – so moving in showing the loneliness and hurt underneath the stern exterior. It was odd the way Weller started out in such a mannered delivery but one did get used to it and he was great as always. McNally packs a lot of social, political and psychological points into the play. And even when he’s grandstanding a bit you forgive him because it all has such humor and understanding. I wonder if Daly can wrest the award from Audra?

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