Mothers and Sons – a new Terrence McNally play

The playwright Terrence McNally’s credits include Kiss of the Spider Woman (on next year’s Two One Way Tickets to Broadway season schedule), Love! Valour! Compassion!, and The Full Monty.  His new play, in its first Broadway run at the Golden Theatre, is Mothers and Sons.

Tyne Daly, of TV’s Cagney and Lacey, plays a mother coming to New York to visit the former partner of her dead son.  As the story starts, Katharine (Daly) is gazing out at the view over Central Park from a charming apartment, rigidly still in fur coat and handbag, while Cal (Frederick Weller) looks out beside her.  He is slightly more at ease because it is his apartment, but you can see immediately that the two are not comfortable together.  And the painfully familiar story unfolds, with the history between them of Andre’s mother having disapproved of his life and their relationship, now wondering about connecting with Cal but still angry and grieving and, well, squeamish.  I admired McNally’s writing and Daly’s acting in showing that resolution is not simple after years of hurt, especially for stubborn people.  It seemed very credible.  Cal’s currrent husband, Will (Bobby Steggert), is significantly younger than he is, and this allowed the playwright to explore some concepts of the differences between gay men who lived through the AIDS crisis years and gay men who were born later, who expected parental support and children and marriage.  The fourth actor in this piece is Grayson Taylor, playing Cal and Will’s 6 year old son Bud, with age-appropriate candour and enthusiasm.   The fathers are thoughtful parents, careful about language and devoted to their son.  Cal and Will are both protective of each other, recalling the years of Katharine’s rejection of her son, but Will is also understandably a little jealous of his husband’s history with Andre.  And as Katharine thaws slightly in her interactions with Cal, Will, and Bud, we learn more of the complexity and unhappiness of her own history, and her wry ability to laugh at herself and occasional glimpses of bereavement allow the other characters and the audience the opportunity to forgive her to the extent they choose to.  (I had a flash of recalling Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, having abandoned his youngest daughter after her too-outrageous choice of partner by saying he can only bend so far, then sharing eye contact with her and her husband as they are exiled.)

I was on the edge of my seat gripping my program in the dark and frequently taking off my glasses to wipe away tears of recognition, so the only line I wrote down was “Maple syrup doesn’t recognise state lines” (about one man’s family’s sugar bush in New Hampshire).  But there were lots of better ones.   Tyne Daly is amazing in this show, and the other actors are strong enough to keep up with her.  I hope it will play for a long time, and I hope it will lead to a production in Edmonton someday.   You should see this show if you like portrayals of complicated older women, troubled families, happy families, queer history, New York City, or credible children who are realistically charming. Or if you’re already a fan of Terrence McNally or any of the actors.


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