During Terrence McNally’s prolific, eclectic career, key pieces of the playwright’s work have artfully and compassionately explored evolving gay life in America. From Lips Together, Teeth Apart to Love! Valour! Compassion! and now Mothers and Sons, McNally has taken theatergoers from the AIDS crisis and its devastating losses into the era of widespread support for marriage and family rights.
Through his art, McNally aims to illuminate lives in a way that stirs empathy and contributes to change. And he does.
The Tony Award-nominated Mothers and Sons, which was on Broadway just last spring, is now getting a fresh production at GableStage. Director Joseph Adler has sculpted a show that is at first dominated by guarded politeness, occasional jolts of comedy or absurdity, and a precisely controlled undercurrent of tension. But by the end of a 90-minute drama that grows in intensity, most in the audience are as deeply moved as McNally’s characters.
Those characters are Cal Porter (Michael McKeever), a successful Manhattan-based money manager; Cal’s younger husband, writer Will Ogden (Jeremiah Musgrove); their little boy, Bud Ogden-Porter (Gabe Sklar and Max Leifman alternate in the role); and Katharine Gerard (Angie Radosh), the widowed mother of Cal’s late partner Andre.
Cal and Katharine were characters in the 1988 short play Andre’s Mother, which brought McNally a 1990 Emmy after he expanded it for television. Mothers and Sons takes place 20 years after Andre’s AIDS-related death. After eight years of mourning, Cal has moved on, meeting and marrying Will, embracing fatherhood, rediscovering joy. Katharine, on the other hand, has burrowed ever deeper into bitterness and rage.
Mothers and Sons brings Cal and Katharine together for the first time since Andre’s 1994 memorial service. It takes place inside Cal and Will’s handsome Central Park West apartment, a place with glorious city views, as a frosty and formal Katharine unexpectedly shows up to return something to Cal. Their conversation, which eventually includes a testy Will and the curious Bud, doesn’t go well.
Katharine and Cal are, to a degree, antagonistic constructs. She embodies judgment and unenlightened condemnation. He is loving, forgiving and thoroughly sympathetic. But Adler and his two gifted, Carbonell Award-winning actors fill in the emotional contours of the pair so that we wonder — and care about — where this difficult reunion will take them.
Radosh, one of the region’s finest actors, has the tougher job. Playing a lonely, haughty, defensive woman who kept herself at a physical and emotional distance from her suffering only child is one tough assignment. But Radosh makes the tiny glimpses of vulnerability, the revealing moments when it’s clear how Katharine contributed to making her late life so empty, hit home.
McKeever’s innate warmth and likeability are a good fit for Cal. But working with Adler, he gets to a place of righteous fury that makes Cal someone who can pierce Katharine’s armor.
The appealing Musgrove makes the generational differences between Will and the 15-years-older Cal — and the differences in parenting styles — seem organic. And though Bud’s inquisitiveness includes plenty of awkward questions, Sklar is unfailingly sweet and adorable.
The work of designers Lyle Baskin (set), Ellis Tillman (costumes), Jeff Quinn (lighting) and Matt Corey (sound) is of a piece with the contributions of Adler and the cast: lovely.
Mothers and Sons isn’t McNally’s best-ever play, but it’s another enlightening encapsulation of a moment in history. And at GableStage, it’s memorable theater.