- Mothers and Sons by Terrence McNally
Mothers and Sons, Terrence McNally’s most recent drama, hit several historical milestones during its limited Broadway run in the spring of 2014. For McNally, one of the most accomplished playwrights in American theatre, the play marked his twentieth show on Broadway. Beginning in 1963, with his adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Lady of the Camellias, McNally has presented his work on Broadway for over fifty years. He has won Tony awards for his plays Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995) and Master Class (1995) and for books to the musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) and Ragtime (1998).
Mothers and Sons, a ninety-minute play directed by Sheryl Kaller and starring Tyne Daly, was also championed as the first play on Broadway to feature a married gay male couple. The play takes place in the home of Cal and Will and their 6-year-old son, Bud. Their apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan overlooks Central Park and has all the markings of affluence and leisure. Cal (Frederick Weller) works in finance, and Will (Bobby Steggert) is an aspiring novelist. The set design, perfectly rendered by John Lee Beatty, featured a main living area that conveyed the comfort of this family’s domesticity, as well as its normality. Their daily routines as an intergenerational gay couple raising a son—Cal is 48, Will is 33—are so beside the point that McNally does not invest his dramaturgy in their dramatic potential. We are meant to observe their relationships as matter of fact. However, at one point, McNally has Cal note the historical shift in these norms when he explains to a bewildered Katharine his own transformation: “Fatherhood comes a little more naturally to Will than me. I think it’s generational. I never expected to be a father. He never expected not to be one” (37). The play does not dwell on this difference, it merely marks it. McNally’s subtle set up refuses to have the gay couple be the play’s central dramatic problem. Their unremarkable—that is to say, totally typical—household is among McNally’s most radical achievements. The audience is invited to assume the normality of the gay couple’s marriage and parenting—we are in their home after all, and it is 2014.
So if the couple itself does not provide the main dramatic conflict in the play, what then does? The play begins with Cal and Katharine looking out the window exchanging small talk on a late afternoon in December. Katharine, the mother of Cal’s former partner, Andre, who died of AIDS in the 1990s, has stopped by unannounced to deliver to Cal her son’s unopened journal. Formidable in her fur coat and stoic demeanor, she at first refuses Cal’s hospitality. The last time they saw each other was at Andre’s memorial service over two decades ago. This scene was dramatized in McNally’s 1988 eight-minute play Andre’s Mother, which was adapted for television in 1990, winning McNally an Emmy. Mothers and Sons returns us to these characters and chronicles the dramatic transformations that have occurred for gay people in the past twenty-five years, as well as others’ responses to these cultural shifts. It is a play as much about personal and social change as it is about family; the mothers and sons of the title embed the play in themes of kinship and how AIDS transformed the idea of family over time.
We learn immediately that Katharine remains haunted by the loss of her son, her only child, and blames Cal in part for his death. Herself a recent widow, she has left Dallas, where she has been living, to visit New York before departing for Rome for Christmas. Cal also has been traumatized by AIDS and questions how Andre’s parents could have remained absent during Andre’s illness. He and Andre had been partners for six years before Andre succumbed to AIDS at age 29. In many ways, the play is...