SpeakEasy Stage's "Mothers and Sons": It's Not Only a Play

Nancy E. Carroll & Michael Kaye in "Mothers and Sons"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

Fittingly, Mothers Day was the date of the official opening of SpeakEasy Stage Company's New England premiere of Terrence McNally's “Mothers and Sons”, a Tony nominee a year ago for Best Play. You know a play is the work of McNally when it opens and closes with an operatic aria (in this case, from Mozart's lesser-known opera “Shepherd King”, about being “constant in my love for him”). It's 2014, on the shortest day of the year, blustery cold outside, in an overheated upscale New York apartment overlooking Central Park, including the very spot where the memorial celebration had been held for gay man Cal's former lover, Andre, who died of AIDS twenty-odd years earlier. (That was the subject of McNally's earlier play in 1988, expanded for an Emmy-winning PBS adaptation in1990, “Andre's Mother”, in which Cal confronts the unnamed mother of the deceased). In the original version, the mother never speaks a word, perhaps a metaphor for all those parents of gay children who are incapable of confronting reality, never mind accepting, or even speaking about it. In this play, Andre's mother has arrived unannounced at the home of her son's former lover and his family, and at first steadfastly declines to remove her mink coat, despite the warmth of the apartment, as though it's her armor for the seemingly inevitable confrontation to come. As Cal said in the earlier play, “how many of us live in this city because we don't want to hurt our mothers and live in mortal terror of their disapproval?”.

Strictly speaking, “Mothers and Sons” isn't a sequel, though it features two characters from the earlier work, and the current play opens similarly to the previous one, with a lengthy monologue by Cal Porter (Michael Kaye), as Andre's mother Katherine Gerard (Nancy E. Carroll), stands in silence. This time, however, her silence is broken, even before the arrival home of Cal's husband Will Ogden (Nile Hawver) and their six-year-old son Bud Ogden-Porter (Liam Lurker). Like it or not, Cal is Katherine's last link to Andre, through whom she once hoped to live her life vicariously, perhaps expecting too much of him, and unable to let him go. She's concerned about her legacy disappearing when she dies, and denigrates the concept of love, lowering it to the level of mere comfort and concern. She opines that “people don't change”, but it becomes quite apparent that at least Cal has, and perhaps she has, too, given her long-overdue appearance. She ultimately declares that it is not closure she seeks, but revenge. Cal, on the other hand, has moved on from his initial bitterness at his loss, and made a new life for himself. He's even able to bemoan the marginalization of the AIDS epidemic as a chapter in history that will become in the future of society merely a paragraph, eventually a footnote. He's comfortable in describing his discomfort, at first, with the term “husband” as applied to Will, and in his implicit condemnation of bigotry in his stating that gay couples “weren't allowed the dignity of marriage; maybe that's why AIDS happened”.

As for Katherine, it eventually becomes clear that, while the ostensible reason she has suddenly materialized is to return something Cal had sent her, the true reason for her arrival is infinitely more complicated. Lies and secrets are revealed, not in a melodramatic manner, but in one that is integral to the story. Though the structure of the play is old-fashioned (having players exit for the bathroom, for example, in order to facilitate various confrontational scenes), make no mistake about it. This is a radical play, if for no other reason than the depiction of its core family in all its mundane normalcy. Yet Cal admits the discrepancy in his relationship is “generational...I never expected to be a father. (Will) never expected not to be one”. That, in a nutshell, is McNally's genius of observation of society's seismic shift, and no doubt why the title features plural nouns. In a mere ninety minutes, which seem to fly by, he has captured and encapsulated so much about longing and loneliness, dealing with our unresolved anger, and forgiveness (of others and ourselves) and even redemption. His stark depiction of the transformation in society's thoughts and feelings about family (and its diversity today), with same-gender couples being good parents, is so devastatingly brilliant that it might well take your breath away.

As Director Paul Daigneault, the company's Producing Artistic Director, writes in the program notes, this was the first Broadway play to feature as its protagonists a legally married gay couple. It profits from the passion and compassion of its author. While it's partly about AIDS, it's from the perspective, not of the disease itself, but that of the people that it affected, their personal grief, and the degrees of individual and social change, and sometimes lack thereof, that has occurred in the last two decades. In the playwright's words, it's about “those left behind...about what AIDS is doing to human relationships”. It features four generations, each with a specific view towards the disease. McNally, who has had a lengthy and prolific career (with four Tony Awards, and another nomination for this season's Best Book of a Musical, “The Visit”, as well as a current Broadway revival of his “It's Only a Play”), has an uncanny ear for truth. In “Andre's Mother”, Cal expressed his desire: “I've always had it in my mind that one day we would be friends, you and me” yet admitted that “the only thing that frightened (Andre) was you”. By the final scene, your heart and soul may well be sung “by flights of angels to your rest”. While “Mothers and Sons” is at one and the same time old-fashioned, as noted above, and groundbreaking, it's worth is in its truth.

Daigneault has firmly recognized this in his wonderful direction of this remarkable cast. None of this foursome ever hits a wrong note, including the very believable Hawver (who manages in just a few nuanced lines to reveal that his character is a tad controlling, not a plaster saint) and the utterly natural support of young Lurker. But it's the work of Kaye and Carroll that commands our attention, and rightly so. Kaye's Cal is complex and heartbreakingly real in a very difficult role to inhabit, yet he does so supremely well. Carroll's Katherine may well be her finest work to date (and that's saying a whole lot, given her many unforgettable appearances in a remarkably varied career). Whether admiring her deadpan delivery of some of McNally's best lines, or her continual reacting in character, you simply can't take your eyes off of her. On the technical side, the Scenic Design by Erik D. Diaz and Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker perfectly capture the naturalness of the normal life of the family, and the Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg and Sound Design by David Remedios are equally right for the work.

In the end, this is a play that shouldn't fail to move even the most jaded theatergoer to the point of tears, and beyond. Its honesty is that astonishing. It's not only a play, it's a truly moving shared experience. One might ask, in the end, is this play manipulative? Of course it is, but in a very positive sense...the way all theater can and should be, especially great theater such as this.

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