Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 24, 2014
Mothers and Sons A play by Terrence McNally. Directed by Sheryl Kaller. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Cast: Tyne Daly, Frederick Weller, Bobby Steggert, Grayson Taylor.
Certainly McNally has long embraced this topic, having documented the gay experience in a number of major stage plays over the last few decades, and even dipping into television for one of his most timely and affecting: Andre's Mother. It's that 1990 American Playhouse venture, which was set at Andre's memorial service and looked at how mother Katharine and lover Cal both dealt with the loss, that sets up the core story that's still playing out in those characters' lives two decades later.
Neither Katharine (Tyne Daly) nor Cal (Frederick Weller) has ever fully recovered: She, a once-upon-a-time New Yorker who moved to Dallas with her family many years ago, blames Cal for taking Andre away from her; Cal, who's since married a much-younger man named Will and had a son with him, perceives her cool prejudice as being truly at fault, and a big part of the reason it took him so many years to return to the world of the living.
She's come to visit Cal's Manhattan apartment to return Andre's unopened diary to Cal, believing that, as it details her son's time in New York, it more aptly belongs with him; Cal had sent it to her in the first place. And while she's there, Cal sees a chance to divest himself of his final links to Andre, which include a box of old photographs and a poster from his star turn as Hamlet shortly before his death, so Cal can finally be totally and undeniably Will's.
From a theatrical standpoint, that's it, and in a number of ways it's sufficient. Daly is outstanding as Katharine: The tentative exactness with which she approaches opening that box of photos, or the subtle disdain with which she surveys the furnishings or Will's hand when presented, don't let you forget that Katharine views Cal and Will's home as enemy ground. Yet, at the same time, the complexity of her emotions is evident from the first moment you see her, obviously battling rage and disappointment in roughly equal measure. And Daly proves to increasing degrees over the 95-minute running time, that Katharine, closed-minded though she may be, can be more than the unhinged bigotry McNally frequently uses to define her.
Steggert makes a strong foil to this woman to whom Will feels no connection, and defines the young man as an energetic representative of a culture that could not be further removed from hers. Weller, whose delivery is stilted beyond Cal's mere discomfort at the situation, is less convincing, as is Taylor, who's game but shrill, even for a child actor. Ultimately, however, this is the story of Katharine's evolution from tamped-down agony to tolerable tolerance, and everything else is just a means to that end.
As a result, Mothers and Sons falls just short of becoming a play. It's instead a political and social treatise, effective at demonstrating where we've come in the last 24 years and what must still be done, but not moving or exciting on any other terms. McNally, who's usually adept at giving three-dimensional life to what might otherwise be flat constructs, has foregone doing so here, in favor of making his points about the changing landscape of love, marriage, and family that Katharine is determined to resist.
Cal and Will's life is basically perfect, with Cal a money manager who can afford an opulent, skyscraping co-op (the sumptuous set design is by John Lee Beatty). The closest they come to a quarrel occurs when Cal substitutes the word "Eskimo" for "Inuit" when speaking to Katharine. And Bud is a precocious but PC delight who shines as an exemplar of how much can and will be right when equality is well and truly equal.
Whenever it looks as though McNally might investigate more intriguing aspects of his setupwhat does it mean for Will to function as second fiddle to a ghost, chief among themhe abandons them in favor of more moralizing for Katharine. This bestows enormous power on her, and, in conjunction with Daly's fine performance, forces her conflict with Cal to propel you from beginning to end. But it's not a story to get lost in, and there are no obstacles other than Katharine's that seem designed to be taken seriously.
In this way it's the natural and understandable extension of Andre's Mother, which hardly avoided this problem, though it doesn't make for a more captivating evening. It's possible to enjoy, and even be edified by, what happens, and this is a fitting new component of the McNally oeuvre, which in the decades to come will likely stand as one of the finest chronicles of the American gay experience throughout and beyond the AIDS eras. But if Mothers and Sons leaves you wishing you were observing the struggles of flesh-and-blood people rather than pressed-and-polished symbols, the passion and the anguish they evince in their most in-tune moments somehow manage to be just barely real enough.