Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Mothers and Sons
City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid

Damian Vega and Lillian Bogovich
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo
She stands in rigid posture with her luxurious mink coat wrapped so tightly as to allow only a glimpse of her designer two-piece suit that is crowned by a single strand of pearls. Clutching with clenched fists her designer-style purse as if the startled man before her might grab it at any moment, she starkly declares, "I'm not staying." But stay this elegantly attired statue of a white-haired woman does for the next ninety minutes, as she and he struggle to come to terms with the AIDS-related death of her son—his lover—some twenty years prior.

Much has changed in the world around them since those days when AIDS was both a sure death sentence and a reason for many families to turn their backs in shame and righteousness on its victims. What has not changed is the prevailing ache of loss, the futile need still to find blame, and the resulting anger for those Polaroid moments when backs were turned and hugs not given. In a gripping, raw-nerved unveiling of emotions long pent-up and unexpressed, City Lights Theater Company presents a search for resolution and forgiveness in the latest Tony nominated play of Terrence McNally, Mothers and Sons.

After two decades of no communication, Katharine appears on a late December afternoon at the Fifth Avenue flat of her dead son's former lover, Cal. Bearing Andre's journal sent to her years prior by Cal (a journal neither she nor Cal have either dared ever to open), Katharine is startled and increasingly incensed to discover Cal now has a happy family of own, his younger husband Will and their eight-year-old son Bud. The two begin a volley of back-and-forth lobbed memories told with some smiles and sighs peppered by high-velocity accusations thrown over the net in biting jabs of "Why didn't you?," "How could you?," and "Where were you?"

In between their multiple ebbs and flows of moments when genuine connections occur in their reminiscences of Andre and when eruptions suddenly explode as one or the other breaks in with a new jab, husband Will and son Bud pop in and out, sometimes to antagonize anew by making a snide remark (Will) and at other times, to diminish quickly the air's tension by being an inquisitive, but totally innocent boy (Bud). Both Katharine and Cal struggle in determing how to (and even whether or not to) relate to each other and in that push and pull, each begins to relinquish long-held secrets of self regret that have poisoned their souls.

Lillian Bogovich is stunningly powerful in the role of Katharine—a woman who enters the apartment carrying a lifetime of regrets. Beginning with a recently deceased husband who took her from her beloved New York to the hated land of Dallas and its "gratuitous flattery," her bitter sadness in this visit focuses mostly on losing a son whom she largely avoided and rejected once he got the disease she clearly still has a difficult time naming.

Every minute Ms. Bogovich's Katharine is on stage it is difficult for the spotlight not to stay hovered on her as she continually reacts to what she sees and hears around her in both carefully measured manners and astonishingly emotive expressions. She stiffens in abrupt defiance of accepting any blame, lashes out with a voice full of biting edge, and then melts into a tearful ball of cherished memories. Her eyes are always looking out unseen windows between her and the audience as if she hopes to catch one more time a glimpse of her long-gone son or of a time when maybe she was more at peace with herself. When she is not looking out, her eyes hover and scan nervously the floor around her as she largely avoids looking into the eyes of the man of whom she accuses, "You took him from me forever." With a mouth that stubbornly stays locked in a horizontal line of grimace, Katharine's face often appears as if any moment, it will break into a thousand pieces.

Katharine's late afternoon becomes a journey of unexpected discovery as her floodgate of out-pouring to Cal becomes an unexpected therapy session to a reluctantly listening counselor. At one point she admits, "There's so much to say that is not about Andre ... It's all about me." The woman who comes in declaring, "I don't want closure ... I want revenge," later discloses, "I was always only Andre's mother ... They didn't see me as a person." As she recounts her own life using memories of Andre as a means to her own ends, Katharine is both bitter and defeated as she asks rhetorically to Cal, "Why did your life get better after Andre died and mine got worse?"

Lillian Bogovich presents us with a mother we want to dislike, even hate, as much as Cal has for these past twenty years. She becomes a person many of us may want to forgive and leave open the possibility that maybe she can finally change—a temptation for reconciliation that Cal is clearly struggling to resist throughout the prolonged visit.

Cal's initial non-stop, detailed description to the silent, statuesque Katharine of the Upper West Side and Central Park scene below them gives way to his in-bred, in-control, and more cautious manners that come with his being a high-paid financial planner. As Katharine continues to extend her surprise visit beyond his evident comfort level, Damian Vega finds subtle-to-blatant ways to express Cal's lingering pain, sorrow, and even bitterness about his life with Andre and his memories of this, Andre's mother.

While these past nine years, Cal has clearly moved on from Andre's death to establish a wonderful life and family, Katharine's appearance has unlocked both savored and suppressed memories that once out, open up hurt that has never been resolved. "You should have held me that day ... I wanted you to love me for loving him," he tells a still-unmoved Katharine. While he stumbles a couple of times in his lines and sometimes keeps his emotional expression within a too-narrow range, overall, Damian Vega does in the end find enough ways to believably and convincingly alternate between happy and sad, comforting and critical, stay longer and leave now.

As six-year-old Bud, fifth-grader Izaiah Gutierrez shows a hit-you-in-the-heart genuineness that only a child that age can sometimes show to someone he is meeting for the first time. Katharine is caught quite unawares when Bud suggests in that kind of sweet, matter-of-fact voice that only a young child can have, "You can be my grandmother; I don't have one." With a barrage of questions for Katharine that freak out his parents, Bud begins slowly to win her over with his natural charm and caring (and a plate of Oreos), and the two build a connection that eventually becomes a bridge Cal probably thought he would/could never cross.

As Cal's husband, aspiring novelist and stay-at-home-dad Will, Max Tachis brings a fresh, naturally likeable quality that contrasts wonderfully to the more reserved, more troubled Cal. He bounds with an energy his fifteen-year-older husband has long left behind; and he has just enough devilishness in him to spark the goings-on with a dig here, a suggestion there that most people would probably say as a whispered aside. But Mr. Tachis' Will also brings in both words and especially looks, through eyes and countenance, broad hints that maybe it is time for Cal to let go and move on from his many years of hating this woman.

Ron Gasparinetti has designed a stunning, spacious flat complete with beautiful floors, furnishings, and a fireplace appropriate for an Upper West Side apartment. Well-placed pictures and memory-filled items pack the shelves, walls, and semi-seen hallways that properties designer Miranda Whipple has so aptly created—many of which provide non-scripted explanations and stories all their own (such as a series of penguin-like ceramic birds lined up in the order of the gay, rainbow flag). Mary Baronitis has lit the evening-approaching atmosphere beautifully, and George Psarras's sound design provides off-stage effects of the city and the six-year-old boy as well as a soundtrack of wonderful, mostly classical songs to enhance the setting. Finally, Anna Chases' costumes accentuate so accurately the personalities of each character, from a Dallas socialite to a bouncing boy excited for Christmas.

One final note: As he seems oft to do, Terrence McNally inserts into this script some historical commentary and messaging, but under the direction of Jeffrey Bracco and through the talents of this cast, the preachy tendency of the script I have seen in other productions is largely and thankfully avoided. Under Bracco's direction, Mr. McNally's characters vividly tell that story and where the world has progressed for gays twenty years later just by who they are.

Mothers and Sons, through February 17, 2019, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday - Friday, 1-5 p.m.