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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
MOTHERS AND SONS
at the John Golden

MATERNAL INSTINCTS
By DAVID COTE

  Bobby Steggert and Frederick Weller/ Ph: Joan Marcus

You can’t find a title more basic than Mothers and Sons. Doesn’t roughly half of Western drama cover the topics? (The other half is Fathers and Daughters.) Oedipus, Hamlet, Tom Wingfield and just about any O’Neill protagonist would agree. And yet the venerable Terrence McNally is after something subtler than his new play’s generic title might suggest. In this sensitively drawn and finely acted chamber piece, what constitutes a mother or a son is skillfully undermined and redefined for a contemporary audience.
 
Two of the play’s characters began life several years ago. Texas matron Katharine Gerard and gay New Yorker Cal Porter first appeared in a short play McNally contributed to a Manhattan Theatre Club anthology in 1988. Two years later, he expanded it into a 50-minute teleplay for PBS called Andre’s Mother. The story follows Katherine and Cal at the memorial service for Andre Gerard, Katherine’s gay adult son, who recently died from AIDS. Katharine, rocked by grief and confusion, blames her son and his bereaved lover, Cal, for the tragedy. She can’t believe her golden boy could have turned out so wrong.
 
Two decades later, despite sweeping changes in society and culture, Katharine still hasn’t learned much. The fur-swaddled matriarch (Tyne Daly) seems still encased in a glacier of mourning when she drops in, unannounced, on Cal (Frederick Weller) at his west-side apartment overlooking Central Park. Cal, a money manager, lives with novelist Will Ogden (Bobby Steggart), and they’re raising six-year-old Bud (Grayson Taylor), Will’s biological son from a surrogate mother. The men run a cozy and loving household, even if certain so-called red states would find the arrangement objectionable on vaguely religious grounds. Katharine, while neither a bigot nor a homophobe, is uncomfortable in this environment.
 
What exactly does Andre’s mother want, after all these years? Her husband recently died, and Katharine has become completely unmoored from old, familiar ways. She and Cal fill in the blanks since last they saw each other, each keeping a wary emotional distance from the other. He brings out a large box overflowing with photographs, which jogs some memories. Clearly, Katharine is still searching for answers: Who made Andre gay? Why didn’t he tell her? What connection, if any, does she have to this man who knew her son better, perhaps, than she ever did?
 
When Will and Bud enter the apartment and gentle domestic comedy ensues, the question of what constitutes a traditional family gets further complicated. Is it Cal or Will who we should view as “mom” in this same-sex home? Or should we put aside our obsession with gender roles and see how well the boy is loved? By the end of this 90-minute play (which unfolds, refreshingly, in real time on John Lee Beatty’s handsomely appointed set), Katharine faces the choice of her lifetime: standing apart or joining the present. Director Sheryl Kaller stages the action smoothly and with skillful gradations of pathos and dry humor.
 
McNally is in peak form after less than thrilling recent work (Deuce, Golden Age), and he doesn’t make Katharine’s passage easy, or portray the Ogden-Porter household as an infallible paradise. Still, you can’t deny that the world has moved on, and for the better. “What kind of life is that child going to have?” Katharine asks, regarding Bud. “A better one than Andre’s,” Cal responds. “A better one than yours.” His sentiment, like the author’s, isn’t smug or triumphalist. It’s simply the truth, which, for Katharine, has been in short supply.
 
 
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York. He is also a contributing critic on NY1’s On Stage.

 


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