Monday, February 16, 2015

Mothers and Sons: How long does anger last?

Michael Learned, Hugh Kennedy, Jacob Wilner, and James Lloyd Reynolds
Photo Credit: Mark Garvin
Homosexuality was not only forbidden it was dangerous. How long does it take for those wounds to heal?

Mothers and Sons. By Terrence McNally; Wendy C. Goldberg directed. Philadelphia Theatre Company production through March 8, 2015 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. (at Lombard), Philadelphia. 215-985-0420 or

Drama shows us both our better and worse selves. Sometimes it shows us how heroic we might be, imagining ourselves as superheroes who can save the world. Sometime, as in several recent works, it shows us how dreadfully we have behaved in the not too distant past. Selma reminds us how we treated blacks in this country, The Imitation Game and Oscar remind us of how we have treated homosexuals.

Watching these semi-historical stories I am amazed at the progress we have made and yet how those same prejudices are still with us. We still have segregation; we still struggle with homosexuality, although now the discussion, in this country at least, focuses on gay marriage, while in other places, such as Russia, it’s still a crime to be gay; we still don’t have gender equality; in Europe anti-Semitism has re-emerged. And now we have someone new to hate, the Muslim population is something to be feared and demonized.

Drama is one way of exploring why we do the things we do, but sometimes it is so busy documenting exactly what went wrong or lecturing us on what we should be doing that it loses sight of its own story. Mothers and Sons by Terrence McNally at the Philadelphia Theatre Company has some of those issues and even the excellent performances can’t quite overcome the heavy-handedness of the script.

Mothers and Sons is the story of a mother stuck in the past, who wants only to blame someone for the way her life turned out. It has been twenty years since Katherine Gerard’s (Michael Learned) son Andre died of Aids, and she’s still angry.  Recently widowed, she wants to find a target for her anger, so she shows up at the Central Park West apartment of Cal Porter (James Lloyd Reynolds), her son's last lover, for reasons she can’t quite articulate.

And so they stand there, staring out at New York’s Central Park, trying to find a way to communicate. Cal has moved on, he’s got a good job as a financial manager so he can afford that Central Park West apartment, he’s got a husband and a son, something that would have been inconceivable in the days of his relationship with Andre. And Katherine hates him for it. Wants to blame him for making Andre homosexual, wants to blame him for Andre’s death.

Cal, too, would like to make some sense of it all. Despite his new life, he still has a poster of Andre hanging in the hallway. He can’t quite believe he has a husband, even the word surprises him, and a son and that life has turned out so well for him.

They are barely making progress when new husband Will Ogden (Hugh Kennedy) appears with their outspoken son Bud (Patrick Gibbon, Jr., played alternately with Jacob Wilner). This young man, fifteen years younger than Cal, accepts the freedom to be gay, to be married as the way things should be. (Interesting that Oscar Wilde’s young lover was also fifteen years his junior. Is that the appropriate age difference for changing attitudes about homosexuality?)

Living in New York in the eighties, watching young men sicken and die has become a vague memory. Not that long before we had watched young men coming home from Vietnam in body bags on the nightly news. Now they were dying at home, and no one was really sure why or what to do about it. Your hairdresser was suddenly unavailable, and then was gone, and no one wanted to talk about it. I had a friend who literally died of fright because he could not cope with who he was and with what the illness would do to him. When I had visited him in the hospital no one knew how safe it was to get close to him. Could I touch him, could I breathe the same air? I stood in the doorway and talked to him and hoped I wouldn’t catch whatever he had.

This discomfort of the characters feels real, they are generations apart in more than age. But the direction leaves everyone stilted. No one quite inhabits their roles as real people, they are caricatures of themselves. The dialog reflects that, too. Katherine, in particular, represents everyone who hates homosexuals for a variety of reasons, and she expresses them all, one after the other, as if McNally put the words of every angry mother in her mouth without quite creating a real person. She wants revenge, punishment, expiation, explanation. She wants attention paid to her, she wants to be loved.
Only Bud, asking too many questions can break through her veneer. Ignoring the rhetoric, he only wants a grandmother to love him and it seems that there is a glimmer of hope, that she might be able one day to do so.

Is that McNally’s way of saying that there is hope even for those who think they can never accept the inevitable?

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