No one can top actress Tyne Daly at portraying complicated women who are tough and sometimes overbearing in the face they display to the world, while being internally vulnerable and secretive. Her Tony Award-winning take on Mama Rose in Gypsy, her layered turn as Maria Callas in Master Class, and even her four-time Emmy-winning role as Detective Mary Beth Lacy in the long-running television series Cagney and Lacey have all borne the unique Daly stamp.
So if anyone could mine the character of Katharine Gerard, the “Mother” in Terrence McNally’s new play Mothers and Sons opening tonight at the Golden Theatre, it would be Ms. Daly. The problem is, Katharine is such a mass of radioactive toxicity that Daly might just as well be asked to play, and find redemption in, the recently deceased and deservedly despised pastor-of-hate Fred (“God Hates Fags”) Phelps.
Katharine is the mother of Andre, who died 19 years previously of complications arising from AIDS. She has shown up, unannounced and unbidden, on the doorstep of Andre’s long-time lover Cal (Frederick Weller), Cal’s husband Will (Bobby Steggert), and their son Bud (Grayson Taylor). This is not a visit of attempted reconciliation, however; indeed the purpose for Katharine’s appearance is never made clear, possibly not even to herself.
All we know at curtain’s rise is that she is there, standing downstage center in Cal and Will’s lovely New York apartment (nicely rendered by John Lee Beatty), dressed in a floor-length fur coat, resisting Cal’s polite entreaties to remove it and sit because she has no intention of staying (though, of course, she does stay, and even occasionally sits).
What does Katharine want? That becomes the central question of the play. She makes it clear that she offers no acceptance or approval of Andre or Cal (“I don’t have to approve,” she says most emphatically, as if there were any doubt) or later, when she meets him, of Will. The only one she takes to is young Bud, who is innocently accepting of her as a potential Grandma to fill the absence of one in his life.
Ostensibly, the visit is sparked by Katharine’s wish to return Andre’s diary to Cal (she couldn’t mail it?). She hasn’t read it, and has no interest in doing so. Neither, as it happens, does Cal, whom she last saw at Andre’s memorial service (“a little too gay for my taste,” she says). It just seems that Katharine’s days are marked with bitterness and resentment, and now that her husband has also passed away, she cannot abide her life but can only lash out like a cornered she-bear.
And so it goes. Cal and Will each take turns with Katharine, alternately trying out polite small talk and taking the opportunity to apprise her (and the audience) of the roller coaster ride that has marked the last two decades for gays—from ostracized bearers of a deadly virus to marriage equality. Both Mr. Weller and Mr. Steggert do splendidly in roles that really serve as foils to Katharine’s mostly vitriolic comments (“He wasn’t gay when he left Dallas,” she says of Andre, eyeing Cal most accusingly).
It would seem that Mr. McNally (who also penned Master Class, though Ms. Daly’s participation in it came later, with the most recent Broadway revival) had a lot on his mind that he wanted to address with this play. He wrote an earlier incarnation titled Andre’s Mother back in 1988, a short work that took place at Andre’s memorial service in Central Park. The playwright has also spoken of his rocky relationship with his own mother, proud of his accomplishments but none too happy with his sexual orientation.
There is, then, authentic motivation behind Mothers and Sons. As a play, however, it is unfortunately clunky. Emotionally charged speeches, which abound, are not enough to raise the work above that of a polemic. Cal exists as representative of the link between past and present. The younger Will exists as representative of a new generation of gay men who grew up with a greater sense of self-respect and acceptance, so that they expect it rather than appreciate it when it kindly shows up.
Bud serves three purposes. One purpose, of course, is to let us know that married gay couples with children are becoming an established feature of the landscape. A second purpose is that of a theatrical device to allow Cal and Will to take turns with Katharine, as one or the other leaves the room to help their son with his bath or to get him changed for bed.
The third purpose, and the most manipulative one, is to tug at Katharine’s (and the audience’s) heartstrings, so that at the very end we are expected to find a glimmer of hope in an Oreo cookie she accepts from the lad. (I will say, I suspiciously eyed an untrimmed Christmas tree in the corner, fearing an outbreak of caroling would ensue).
If there is a lesson to be learned from all of this, it is that playwrights—no matter how established and successful they have been—need someone to read their work through a clinical and unemotional lens and consider its impact and potential for presentation to an audience that is not necessarily as personally invested in the message. Whether director Sheryl Kaller had that role is unknown to me.
In this case, the message is significant enough to warrant additional work on the play, and the quality of the acting—first-rate all around—makes it worth the visit. But I can’t help thinking of the stunning 2011 revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which so successfully married message with theatrical verisimilitude. It can be done.
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