Terrence McNally, over the course of a five-decade writing career, has garnered a room full of awards including a Pulitzer nomination. He has been honored for his body of work several times, particularly from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he must have a special spot for his multiple Obie, Tony, Emmy, Lortel and Guggenheim citations. He’s 76 now, still a litterateur, still on top of things, still relevant.
But, has he ever written a more important and timely piece than last year’s “Mothers and Sons,” a 100-minute, Tony-nominated, heart-wrenching and enlightening story of the need for human connection and forgiveness? Probably not.
Buffalo United Artists (BUA) has opened a production of “Mothers and Sons,” which had a short but acclaimed run on Broadway in 2014. Jessica Rasp is directing Anne Hartley Pfohl, Brian Riggs, Michael Seitz and newcomer Stefanos Psorakis on the Alleyway Theatre stage, almost always a good fit for the peripatetic BUA, Javier Bustillo’s provocative, tireless, cutting-edge LGBT acting troupe. McNally plays, forums for change, have long been favorites at BUA and admiration seems mutual: McNally sent an opening night message saying how “proud and grateful” he was at BUA’s play choice.
“To a large extent, McNally has chronicled the revolutionary changes he has seen in the lives of gay Americans – and what playwright has more right to do so?” wrote Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune, in his commentary about “Mothers and Sons.”
But even McNally couldn’t have foreseen the day when one of his plays would feature a male, same-sex married couple leading lives not in the margins of society anymore, but comfortably mainstream in a great apartment with a son to raise. “Mothers and Sons” is a long way from McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Some Men” and other 1990s plays of closeted, unfulfilled, persecuted and dying gays with the then death-sentence of HIV-AIDS an integral part of everyday life.
In “Mothers and Sons,” enter the mother of the play’s title: Katherine, an unhappy, self-pitying, bitter, grieving widow from Dallas. She pays an “impromptu” New York visit to Cal, the former lover of her actor son, Andre, dead from AIDS 20 years. Katherine, completely out of touch, snippy, vitriolic and homophobic, is shocked to find Cal, now married to Will and with a 6-year-old son, living happily and well. She accuses Cal of infecting her son, a charge not true: “He wasn’t gay when he came to New York,” she denies. Will, trying to be civil, calls her a “gorgon” – a terrifying woman. In many ways, she is so.
And so the afternoon-into-evening visit goes. Katherine and Cal have moments of quiet but both privately seethe. They talk, begin to confide, muse over old photos. Many times, as secrets are disclosed, they say “I didn’t know that.” This is McNally country. Things could have been so different had someone – certainly Katherine, Cal, the troubled Andre – listened long ago. A message to us from McNally, a little advice, a parable.
In truth, “Mothers and Sons” rambles and repeats. Several times, Katherine asks for her coat. Please, Cal, I thought, get it. And, minutes before young Bud charms Katherine with some cookies and milk and a hint of resolve surfaces, she is still spitting hate. Cal, for his part, can’t – won’t – forgive Katherine for her lovelessness and disdain for Andre, life, the world. Peace would be nice but a long-lasting truce seems a reach.
The estimable Pfohl, returning to BUA after a long hiatus, underscores her diva status as the complex Katherine, saccharine grin early on segueing quickly into spite and sneer; admirable work. The nuanced Riggs is a brilliantly torn Cal, his life in sad flashback, his recount of his days as Andre’s caregiver moving and haunting. The solid Seitz, a BUA regular, again impresses and young Psorakis, unfortunately inaudible for the most part, nevertheless is stage-smart, warm and lovable, melting everyone including Katherine.
Director Rasp has a firm hand on things, builds tension nicely, sets the proper pace and gets the best from her fine cast. She seems to be an able McNally interpreter.
What: “Mothers and Sons”
Who: Buffalo United Artists
Where: Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley
When: Through March 14