Tyne Daly has found herself a rich and demanding role, and she inhabits it with all of her considerable talent in peak condition. The role is Katherine Gerard, who first appeared in public in a short play, and then in an Emmy winning teleplay called “André’s Mother”, both written by Terrence McNally, now revisited by the playwright in this sequel, Mothers and Sons.
The earlier work was set in 1990, at the Memorial Service of André, who had died from AIDS, and been buried in Dallas some weeks before the Memorial. In “André’s Mother” Mrs. Gerard was seated next to Cal Porter, André’s lover (or partner, mate, boyfriend, significant other, all euphemisms for what would today be called “husband”). The teleplay dealt with the lack of communication between André and his mother, causing denial and misery to both of them. McNally was pleading for an end to all that, urging honesty and true intimacy between those who love each other. The other mourners at the memorial service, André’s friends, who had become his surrogate family, sent white balloons sailing into the evening sky, indicating their ability to truly deal with his death, to let him go. His mother could not, and therein is the seed of this new work, set 20 years later.
Mothers and Sons begins with an unexpected and unannounced visit to Cal Porter’s apartment on Central Park West, where he has been living these past 12 years with his new husband, a younger man, Will Ogden. The couple adopted an infant who is now 6 years old, and they are living a satisfying life as a family. The widow Gerard comes by, in New York from her home in Dallas on her way to Europe, to return André’s diary that Cal had sent her, hoping that by reading it, she would finally come to know her son as he really was. But she’d never opened it; and now she’s brought it back. Cal continues to try to expose her to the life her son had truly lived, by sharing with her photos and mementos from their life together, but she never seems to fully understand, twisting their meaning to fit the images in her unyielding mind.
Clearly McNally is writing from the heart. His play is filled with passion, sometimes very movingly, sometimes it comes perilously close to debate. By using the child Bud, who has been taught to express himself without censorship, discussions of what love really is, why “death” is a word he prefers over “passing”, are introduced. Bud’s willingness to accept Katherine, whom he’s just met, as his surrogate grandmother exposes us, and the lady herself, to real feelings, to doubts and confusions with which she’s chosen never to deal.
“People don’t change” she offers by way of excuse. But by play’s end, though she’s proven she can’t change, her playwright tells us she will not leave this apartment with the same conviction with which she entered it 90 minutes earlier.
Beautifully acted, the play comes close to becoming a major work.
It misses because it’s difficult to accept its basic premise — that a woman who never accepted Cal as her son’s true soul mate, who didn’t even invite him to the funeral, would keep the diary he sent, and then drop in on him without warning. There are other blunt words coming from her lips that would realistically earn her a heave-ho from Cal and certainly from Will. Katherine’s lack of insight when she says, in all sincerity, that “André was not gay when he left home to come to New York”, is so astounding, that Cal’s silent response to it comes as a thunderclap. He simply stares in disbelief, and we are shocked as he is.
Written with conviction, using dialog that sounds very right for those who speak it, the play is on numerous occasions genuinely moving. Tyne Daly and Frederick Weller (as Cal) have several set-to’s that are powerful, though as the play marches toward its conclusion it makes its points somewhat ponderously. It ends with just the right amount of conjecture in the air, just enough to get us up the aisle and out of the theatre reasonably satisfied. Ms. Daly has done exactly what any good actress should do — she loves her character and plays without question about her correctness, which makes it easier for us to accept Mrs. Gerard, flaws and all. And that’s exactly how I feel about Terrence McNally’s brave attempt as well.
Mothers and Sons is onstage at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
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