Mothers & Sons raises important questions about struggle, acceptance, and love; it surveys battles that are still being waged.
Mothers & Sons by Terrence McNally. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through June 6.
By Robert Israel
Early on in Mothers & Son, Katherine Gerard (Nancy E. Carroll) surveys Manhattan’s Central Park West with a chilly, self-protective glare. She may be wearing a full-length mink stole, but she is a block of ice. Despite the attempts at forced joviality from Cal Porter (Michael Kaye), whose apartment she has entered unannounced, she cannot budge beyond the self-imposed confines of her unhappiness. We soon learn that Katherine has felt trapped in a loveless marriage in Dallas (her husband is now dead) where she raised an only son, Andre (Cal’s former lover, also dead, at age 29, from AIDS). When Cal attempts to inject humor into their conversation, he is thwarted at every turn. “Very little amuses me,” Katherine retorts.
The opening scene of Terrence McNally’s one-act about humanity repressed is on the lugubrious side, but it is worth remaining patient — flashes of sly humor and subtle flickers of tenderness overcome this conventional picture of the bourgeois ‘deep freeze,’ rescuing the play from sinking into the very depths of self-pity it wants to critique, a potential self-righteousness heightened by the playwright’s tendency on occasion to preach rather than dramatize. Ultimately, McNally supplies an insightful vision that explores loss and the continuing struggle for personal and sexual freedom in a world that is warming, slowly, to a widespread acceptance of gay love.
Katherine and Cal had met years before, at Andre’s memorial. She recalls the event – particularly the heaps of gardenias — with considerable chagrin. She thinks the remembrances offered by Andre’s friends were much “too gay.” Of course, Cal disagrees with her sardonic assessment. He insists that what Katherine found gauche was appropriate, an affectionate reflection of the late Andre’s lifestyle. But she cannot fathom or dare to accept that lifestyle. Brittle battle lines are drawn: an older generation that set the unfair rules and lived comfortably with repressive laws cannot abide the efforts of the subsequent generation to defy, and later defile, those edicts with behaviors that gave way to the AIDS pandemic.
Several plays have explored the political entanglement of the AIDS pandemic. Larry Kramer’s message-mongering The Normal Heart comes to mind. At his best, McNally chooses to focus on the human cost rather than score polemical points. He skillfully touches on social outrage as well as the birth of activism via a casual reference to the AIDS quilt. We learn about the latter from Cal’s young son, Bud (Liam Lurker), who mentions having seen it – blazoned with Andre’s name, among others — at his school.
There are times, however, when McNally steers into overt didacticism, and the play takes on the heaviness of a sermon. Director Paul Daigneault helps matters considerably by focusing on the perspective of Will Ogden (Nile Hawver), Cal’s husband, who provides us with a look at a younger man (there is a 15-year-age difference between Will and Cal) who has come of age as a self-confident homosexual without the baggage (social and medical) that continues to weight down the earlier generation. Yet Will acknowledges and appreciates the struggles that his husband has endured. He comments that, even though it is 2014, the sight of gay men holding hands in Central Park “still turns heads.” Yet, one senses, Will did not have to fight (or suffer) for the right to wed his lover because that law had been passed. That battle has been won, but internalized divisions and grudges take longer to heal.
The SpeakEasy Stage production sometimes buckles under the tonnage of these themes; the staging would be improved by providing more easy-going, tactile moments among the actors early on, given that the frosty distance of the initial scenes don’t thaw out until mid-way through the play. When the characters finally embrace, helped considerably by the presence of Bud, an inquisitive and obviously overindulged youngster, the production warms up considerably. Perhaps to the point of there being too much comradeship too soon: in its final scenes Mothers & Sons turns into bit of a love-fest, a togetherness that seems forced considering the climate of iciness that come before.
The performers are first-rate throughout. It is always a treat to watch veteran actress Nancy E. Carroll lob — with pitch-perfect timing — sarcastic barbs. Michael Kaye takes advantage of Cal’s many moments to shine and, in one memorable scene, draws a compelling glimpse of anguish out of the depths of sorrow. As Will, Nile Hawver brings much needed levity to the proceedings; his rugged good looks, and ability to convey Will’s affection for Cal, anchors the production. Liam Lurker comes to the dramatic rescue by embodying an impetuous child who is able to steal scenes and warm them up at the same time. The set by Eric D. Diaz is open and accommodating, with just the right amount of Manhattanite sophistication.
Mothers & Sons raises important questions about struggle, acceptance, and love; it surveys battles that are still being waged. McNally refrains (most of the time) from serving up answers that overlook the human (and inhuman) intractabilities that stand in the way of progress, of resorting to formulas of empowerment that instantly overcome stubborn prejudices and doubts. Let’s be content to bring up our fears and face them, he argues. Do that, and we stand a better chance of changing society.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org