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"AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE" distinguishes itself once again with the presentation of "Andre's Mother," a play by Terrence McNally, scheduled for 10 p.m. Wednesday on Channel 17.

The drama deals with a homosexual young man named Andre who died of AIDS. The play opens at a memorial service for Andre. Through a series of flashbacks, we get to know the people who loved him, including his lover, Cal Porter (Richard Thomas), and his mother, Katherine Gerard (Sada Thompson).

Playwright McNally has employed the device of never actually having Andre in any scene but his presence is felt through the emotions of his nearest and dearest. Although Andre dies of AIDS, this isn't a depressing story about the disease. It is a study of a mother who never accepted her son's lifestyle and therefore missed out on so much with her son.

Sada Thompson described her character as an inexpressive woman who was afraid to confront the issues and therefore let everything coast along.

"Actually, it was this sense of denial that made the character appealing to play. I had never played a woman like her before. I had to dig deeply to understand her. She was a mother but her reluctance to face facts made her miss so many opportunities to be with her son. It's very sad to see what she did to herself."

Miss Thompson said the play came into existence after McNally and director Jack O'Brien, of the San Diego Globe Theater, saw a group of people releasing a bunch of white balloons. As he watched the balloons dot the sky, McNally asked what it was all about. O'Brien told him it was a ritual involving memorial services for those who had died of AIDS. The play took root at that very moment but it went through many changes until it became "Andre's Mother."

Sylvia Sydney, an esteemed stage and screen star, is featured in the production as Andre's grandmother, Mrs. Downs,a feisty old woman who has no qualms about accepting the reality of the situation -- that her grandson, whom she loved and adored, was a homosexual.

Miss Thompson said she hopes the play will be seen by someone like the character she plays and trigger some emotional valve which could lead to an understanding about a homosexual son or daughter. From an acting standpoint, Sada said "Andre's Mother" is one of those pieces that allow actors to play true emotions. She had nothing but high praise for Richard Thomas, with whom she shared most of her scenes.

"Richard is a joy to work with. He's bright and interested and courageous as an actor. He takes chances and I think his performance in this play is perfect. If the actor playing Andre's lover doesn't come across as thoroughly believable, then Andre's mother has nothing to play off. She'll just come across as an angry woman. And of course, she's more than just an angry woman."

Sada Thompson's fans who remember her from her long run on ABC's weekly series "Family" will be surprised to see her playing a less-than-perfect mother in the "American Playhouse" presentation. Her Kate Lawrence (for which she won an Emmy) in "Family" was everything a mother should be and then some. She was there for her three kids and understood and loved them all without reservation. Mrs. Lawrence may have been too perfect, but it's a credit to Sada Thompson's marvelous performance in the role that she seemed believable at all times.

Her interpretation of Andre's mother is also very real. Those viewers who crave drama with substance will surely not want to miss Sada Thompson as "Andre's Mother."

Tasteful documentaries

According to Dick Hanratty, director of broadcasting at Channel 17, a small number of well-made, tasteful documentaries on gay issues are available to public television stations. Several of these programs are airing during Gay Pride Week.

"In an effort to provide service to all segments of our community, we carried these programs last year in a period of time that was deemed important by the gay community. We received a positive response to the broadcasts.

"We felt it would be appropriate to re-air one of those programs, as well as one new program and the new 'American Playhouse' presentation this month," Hanratty said.

"Lesbian and Gay Rights on Trial," a repeat performance from last year, will air at 10 p.m. Monday on Channel 17.

"Out in Suburbia," a new program profiling 11 lesbian women who live in tree-lined, middle-class hamlets, demonstrates that these women are no different than their neighbors. It is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, right before "Andre's Mother."