REVIEW: Mothers and Sons, Golden Theatre ✭✭✭

Bobby Steggert, Frederick Weller, Grayson Taylor, and Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons
Bobby Steggert, Frederick Weller, Grayson Taylor, and Tyne Daly. Photo: Joan Marcus

Mothers and Sons
Golden Theatre
20 April 2014
3 Stars

One always admires a theatrical experience which can be both entertaining and instructive; one that can shine a light upon a particular aspect of human interaction and make it glow with a persistence which demands attention. This can be achieved a number of ways – great acting, great direction, great writing, great happenstance even.

Now playing at Broadway’s Golden Theatre is Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons (officially, there are no capitals in the titles and the coordinating conjunction is italicised – any guesses as to why gratefully received), a production that uses a fog light on a fog-less but retrospective (mostly) vision of love, life and death in the time of the first panic-stricken and deadly onset of Aids.

Katherine was mother to Andre who loved and lived with Cal for 6 years until Andre’s slow, painful death from Aids. Katherine never met Cal until the memorial service for Andre, and she did not speak to him there. After 8 years of solitude/anguish, Cal met Will, fifteen years his junior, and they loved, married and eventually had a child, Bud, who is now six.

Out of the blue, Katherine arrives unexpectedly at Cal and Will’s Central Parkside apartment. She is recently widowed and on her way to Europe and wants to return to Cal Andre’s diary, a tome she has not read and which Cal, who also did not read it, sent to her after Andre’s death.

The play begins with Katherine and Cal silently gazing, sternly in Katherine’s case, and gormlessly in Cal’s case, out on to Central Park (the audience). It is an arresting opening image and sets the stage for the looking-but-not-seeing which is to follow like a waterfall.

Although they actually have more in common than most sets of two persons, given they both lived for and loved Andre uncompromisingly and unconditionally, both strive to not see the other person’s position. And the course the play takes is to examine those positions in a brutal and unflinching way, punctuated with moments of waspish or guileless humour.

The trouble is that there is much more to this situation and the underlying psychology of these characters than the sometimes banal debates they have suggests. Much of the pain and complexity of these two characters remains unexplored in the writing.

Partly, that seems to be because McNally is writing a kind of Ode to those that were lost and to the suffering of those whose survived that awful time in the 1980s and 1990s. If there is any doubt, it is removed when Will baldly states one of his fears when talking to Katherine about that time, a time he did not live through:

“First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote. … It’s already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away.”

The result is a series of vignettes, snatches of the battle between Katherine and Cal about who hurt Andre the most or who didn’t love him enough juxtaposed between Will’s hatred of the ever-present ghost of Andre and his essentially maternal desire to smooth troubled waters. And against all this is the sweet, open, non-judgmental naivety of the six year old Bud who just loves because all he has known is unqualified, unconditional all-encompassing love.

It is no co-incidence that McNally has set Bud’s age at six. Bud has lived for as long as Cal and Andre were together. To Katherine, he becomes the living embodiment of their love, even though he is not Andre’s child. Against herself, she wants Bud to have a part of Andre about him. The final, harrowing freeze-died image of unendurable pain – the lights dim and Katherine, desolate and desperate, looks at the beatific Bud and across to his loving parents, who are embraced on the sofa, gazing out into the darkening Park, while Andre’s favourite piece of Mozart plays – sees Katherine realise that her choices, her decisions, her words have led her to a place where she will never be a part of anyone’s family again.

But despite many moments of real anguish and genuine emotional involvement, the piece never really congeals as a play. The writing does not permit the characters to be fully realised humans and the acting cannot compensate, despite being, in most cases, first rate.

Pausing for a moment, the use of the word “mothers” in the title bears some thought. At first, it seems odd – because Katherine is mother only to Andre. Before long, it is clear that, whether she likes it or not, she has also been a “mother” (albeit not a maternal one) to Cal and the possibility looms that she could be a “grandmother” to Bud. As the play progresses, it transpires she had another child, one she also threw away by making a choice, although a markedly different choice. Finally, Will is also a “mother” to Bud: he speaks almost poetically about the birth and mothering processes, is the one who provides primary care to Bud and works from home. So, interestingly, McNally plays provocatively with the concept of “mothers”.

What this play needs is more connectivity, more explanation, more understanding of the characters, their motivations, fears, regrets and desires. It is not that everything needs to be spelt out; more that there is unmined richness in the histories and entwined lives of these four people.

For example, Will has only one short exchange in which to convey the depth of his antipathy to the memory of Andre. It’s not enough. This is especially so when it is Will who eventually reads passages from the diary that is the touchstone of Katherine’s motivation for contact with Cal. Another example arises when Cal touches upon but does not explore or explain the circumstances under which Andre became infected. The audience never knows whether Cal was betrayed or whether he sanctioned Andre’s moonlighting. In both examples, and there are many more, McNally leaves the ground untilled, preferring to immortalise the progress made in the recognition of gay couples in society to airing the dirty linen, and hidden motivations and characteristics, of the characters.

Never explored are topics such as: why Katherine never contacted Andre after he fell ill; why Cal did not contact Katherine when Andre fell ill; why neither Katherine or Cal take issue with Will reading the diary even though both regarded it as sacrosanct; why Katherine cannot see that Andre reflects her own life in that he ran away from the place where he was raised as soon as he could.

It’s a lost opportunity, really, because the underlying notions and the possibilities the characters offer could amount to an electric night of theatre.

What makes everything seem better than it really is, quite simply, Tyne Daly.

She is overwhelmingly good as the brittle, vicious, self-righteous and utterly uncomprehending sole survivor of her family. She bristles with barely concealed fury but also pain – deeply etched, deeply felt and, to her mind, deeply undeserved. She never sees the way she contributed to her own dreadful state and her decades long resentment of Cal, simply because he loved her son, wraps her line a shroud. With a voice two-thirds Ethel Merman and one part Evangelist, Daly dominates the stage.

It is in the silences, the moments where she is left alone onstage, mystified, confused, indignant, alienated that she truly shines. With an open mouth and glowering eyes, she communicates the horror of Katherine’s situation with acute clarity and almost demonic specificity. She is wonderful.

For my money, the best scenes in the play come in her various confrontations with Bobby Steggart’s Will. McNally gives Will little stage time and not a lot to say, he is reactive more than proactive. But Steggart makes the very most of what he is given, providing a text-book example of making “something out of nothing”. One of the great failings here is that there is not more exploration of the character of Will.

As Bud, Grayson Taylor is charming and alert, full of warmth, radiating acceptance. Small, blonde and assertive, he lifts proceedings each time he appears.

Curiously, the best written male part, the one with layers, hidden issues and jagged corners, is the one here performed by the least talented actor. Frederick Weller, whose entire body and face seems perpetually clenched (in the same sort of way Felix’s hair was in The Odd Couple) never comes close to unravelling the deep complexity that is Cal. He comes out badly from every encounter with Daly and Steggart and that should not be so.

Cal was chosen by Andre. The audience, and Kathryn, needs to see why that was, but there is little winning, inviting, endearing or seductive about Weller’s performance. While Steggart makes you believe in the Cal/Will union, nothing Weller does adds to that conviction. There is no sense of the minutiae of lives lived together over eleven years, no introspection, no consideration of others – really no sense – at all – of a complex person with a throbbing, loving heart and acres of undealt with anxiety, fear and loathing.

Weller misses opportunity after opportunity. He seems not to notice the attention to detail with which Daly and Steggart enliven their characters. It is profundly disappointing.

This is not a great play. But it is important theatre. It’s themes, topics, underlying harmonies and resonances are important worthwhile ones which should be debated in accessible, entertaining evenings in the theatre. Like this.

The older couple next to me were very uncomfortable for most of the performance. At the end, he said to her “Who knew they cared about kids?” She responded: “Let’s get a drink. (Beat) They’re not dogs you know.” I looked at them askance as they shuffled past.

But then I thought that at least this production had enlightened them in a small way.

And that, and the permanent memory of those awful years when Aids ravaged the world, is more than enough justification for McNally’s work here, as flawed as it might be.

Mothers and Sons is worth seeing, because it will provoke questions and discussion; not because it is a great play.

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