I looked at the wedding band on my left hand, fourth finger, and began [writing Mothers and Sons]. I thought about the young man who had come to New York to be the gay man he knew he already was. I was 17 years old–too young to get into a gay bar but old enough to know where the men were. Like most people, I was looking for love. My story isn’t much more complicated or interesting than that. If you think Andre is me in tonight’s play, you’re right. —Terrence McNally in his letter to Jane Unger, 1/27/16
Terrence McNally’s 2014 play Mothers and Sons opened at Artists Repertory Theatre last Friday. It is a remarkable play in so many ways. But perhaps what struck me the most is how for once it cast a group of people who have been the object of so much vilification and misunderstanding over the years as the winners. Cal (Michael Mendelson) and Will (Ryan Tresser) are a happily married, financially secure gay couple living in New York City. They even have an adorable son, Bud (Holden Goyette). Cal makes money with other people’s money. Will writes novels. Everything is lovely…until Andre’s mother Katharine (JoAnn Johnson) shows up, unannounced and certainly uninvited, at their Upper West Side apartment.
And who is Andre? You might well ask. Before his death from AIDS, Andre was Cal’s husband. Only Andre died 20 years ago, and back then you couldn’t call him a husband.
Twenty years after her only child’s death, the thing still bugging Katharine is “Who made Andre gay?” She looks accusingly at Cal, who had the misfortune to answer the door. “He wasn’t gay when he came to New York.”
About that time, Will comes home with Bud, gives Katharine a stiff bourbon, and the rest of the snakes come out of the basket!
This is a brilliant play on so many levels. The verbal sparring is without equal. Johnson as Katharine can pull a face like few in the business, and her rudeness and ignorance are unimaginable. Yet the character keeps plowing forward, digging herself in deeper and deeper. The most shocking thing about the play is that, as outrageous as Katharine’s behavior, never once do we question its veracity.
Set against the background of a generation of AIDS and rapid social change, this is the real deal in all its ugliness and hate as well as its compassion and wisdom. There are moments when we even want to like Katharine, when we think that Cal and/or Will are getting through to her, if just a little bit.
Jane Unger is to be congratulated for bringing the best performances possible out of this amazing cast. As founding artistic director at Profile Theatre, she produced a season of Terrence McNally plays in 2004/05, before this play was written. Mothers and Sons runs through March 6 at Artists Repertory Theatre, and is a Northwest premiere.