|Frederick Weller and Tyne Daly . Photo: Joan Marcus.|
By Lauren Yarger
I have been dreaming of seeing more meaty roles for women on Broadway and we finally got one. Unfortunately, she's a nightmare of a character in Terrence McNally's play Mothers and Sons.
Tyne Daly turns in a powerhouse performance as a mother trying to come to grips with loneliness years after losing her son to AIDS. Truth be told, Katharine Gerard (Daly) lost her son, Andre, long before he died when she couldn't accept his homosexuality, wasn't part of the life he shared with his partner and when she withdrew her help and love when he contracted the dreaded disease. Now, many years later, she shows up looking for -- something -- at the home of her son's former lover, Cal Porter (Frederick Weller), now comfortably settled with a young husband, Will Ogden (Bobby Steggart), and their son, Bud Ogden-Porter (Grayson Taylor).
Tension and awkwardness fill the gracious apartment overlooking Central Park (John Lee Beatty does the sets). The last time Cal and Katharine met was at Andre's memorial service (in a 1988 sketch "Andre's Mother" by McNally) and things didn't go very well. Cal still has difficulty understanding why she never came from Texas to see her son after hearing that he was ill. Katharine still can't understand the whole homosexual thing and can't even bring herself to shake Will's hand when they meet. And Will has his own uncomfortable zone, suddenly having to deal with the ghost of Cal's perfect mate.
McNally wants us to see the frost that rewards Katharine's cold heart, but the development of the character is too uneven. The recent loss of her husband has left her all alone, but it's unlikely a wealthy society matron from Texas oil country couldn't find people to make part of her life. Still we get the sense that she is looking for a family connection -- but why she comes to New York or seeks out Cal of all people isn't clear. Ostensibly it is to return Andre's journal, which Cal had sent to her after he died, but it's kind of hard to swallow that a mother who is desperately looking for answers as to why her son took up the gay life style, how he became ill and whether he stopped loving her, had never read the pages, which of course, leads to some poignant moments when she finally does. Any normal, loving mother would have breathed in his words. If ice really runs through her veins, however, she'd have tossed the book into the trash. So what are we to think?
At times Katharine seems interested in playing grandmother to little Bud, but is dissuaded from this goal when she discovers that he has no genetic link to Cal (and somehow this would provide a connection to Andre, she thinks). It seems unlikely DNA would matter to someone who is lonely and seeking a family, but she disassociated from her own son. How much can family mean? In the uneven character development, we're given to understand at times that the mother-son bond between Katharine and Andre was close, though. So maybe she feels maternal after all?
One minute she seems quite nice. The next, she is lashing out offensively, for no real reason.
We end up confused by the perspective. What could possibly turn a mother from her beloved son, cause her to abandon him while he's dying, then suddenly make her want to reach out to the person whom she incorrectly blames for making her son gay and infecting him? We're not sure because McNally is more concerned with making statements about the condition of gay America and the consequences of not accepting people for who they are. The result is that Katharine is really not likable and we're not sure whether we are supposed to feel sorry for her or pity those whose lives she touches.
Weller comes off much more sympathetic, with a strong performance as the man who tries to put aside his own hurt to reach out to the offensive woman and help her understand that Andre never stopped loving her. Experiencing the heartbreaking beginning of the AIDS epidemic and witnessing changes in society over the years -- and perhaps in himself -- gives him as unique perspective that keeps this play from falling into the same-old, same-old of the genre.
Cal ponders whether history will even remember the people who knew that a diagnosis of AIDS in the 1980s was a death sentence. Will doesn't. Steggart portrays the younger partner as almost boyish. He's quick to be offended and quick to be jealous. It is a nice contrast to Cal's more settled, mature persona, as directed by Sheryl Kaller (who needs to tone down Taylor's over the top, saccharine cuteness, however.)
There's also a sort of "given" that times have changed so much that Katharine's awkwardness about the idea of two "husbands" is now a thing of the past too, however. Maybe that's the thought in New York, but McNally might be so wrapped up in having these characters make his point, that he forgets that Katharine (whether you feel she's right or wrong) wouldn't be alone in Texas, even in 2014, in her discomfiture about same-sex marriage. Thankfully McNally doesn't attempt to portray Katharine as a Christian, a device used by almost every other playwright writing in the genre. We're never sure, however, why she finds homosexuality "unnatural."
The strong performances, particularly Daly's, make this play worth watching even if its message can be a bit forced.
Mothers and Sons runs at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th St., NYC. http://www.mothersandsonsbroadway.com/
Christians might also like to know:
-- God's name taken in vain
-- Homosexual activity