All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Katharine Gerard , nearing 70, if not there, and widowed, takes what might be called a traditional or conservative view on matters of lifestyle, particularly homosexuality, and about AIDS, from which her only child, Andre, died 20 years before “Mothers and Sons” takes place in 2010. Andre was age 29 when he died, an actor of promise that Katharine never saw perform because she was too disapproving of him living in a committed gay relationship to acknowledge anything but shame and recrimination.
Katharine is not a stupid or naïve woman, especially as played by Michael Learned in the Philadelphia Theatre production of “Mothers and Sons” at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. She can be quite sophisticated about some things and quire sharp about others, but she is of a breed that prefers the conventional and doesn’t understand straying from it. To Katharine, Andre was led to homosexuality and drawn to AIDS by men who lured him from the wholesome path Katharine raised him and expected him to follow, actor who showed signs of being “different” from childhood or not.
Katharine is especially contemptuous of Andre’s lover, Cal — Lover, the word used when Andre died in 1990 is so much more pleasant that today’s “partner,” a distinction McNally addresses. — also a widow who after eight years of mourning, met and married Will, with whom he raises a son, Will’s natural child with an egg donor and surrogate carrier.
Cal and Will may have a contemporary marital relationship, including good dietary habit and politically correct attitudes, but they are more than a decade apart, and that gives each a different outlook.
Cal, at age 49, is of the group that first enjoyed liberation, being out as gay without fear of arrest or repercussions at work. He is also of the group that attended funeral after funeral as dozens of friends and acquaintances succumbed to AIDS.
Cal can remember discrimination, rampant or subtle. He can remember a brief time before AIDS reared its ugly head. And, of course, he can remember those services, solemn or celebrations of life. The only time he saw Katharine was at Andre’s funeral, where she was a stone. Not a rock that gives support and is turn appreciated for her loss. A stone, a still, silent figure who attends but does not participate or commune in harmony with others.
Cal has dealt with Katharines. He lived with the son she rejected and whose happiness she ignored out of her pique at his not being the poster child she could boast about to her friends in Dallas.
To Will, 35, Katharine is a dinosaur, a gorgon. At his age, he has reaped the benefit of the liberators and feels assimilated into a society that accepts gay couples without a blink and that may find an obstacle here or there but is, in New York’s Upper West Side anyhow, removed from most the ordeals Cal and Andre shared when they came out in the ’80s. Will stands for the hetero-normative gay who wants a home a family, adoption or creating a child as science allows, being an integral part of life. He doesn’t know struggles, and he is not willing to stand much of Katharine, who was not even a warm mother-in-law to Cal and who can be offensive, especially to Will’s more modern sensibility.
Then there’s Buddy, Will and Cal’s six-year-old son.
Buddy has been raised in an open world. And in Manhattan. Prejudice, which doesn’t prevail much in Will and Cal’s home except where Katharine is concerned, is not part of Buddy’s vocabulary. He is of a generation for which the melting pot finally blended. Buddy can take all in his stride. Having two Dads is not an anomaly. Knowing and being friends with people of all kinds is a given.
“Mothers and Sons” takes us from a woman who is steeped in convention, bias, and narrow-mindedness to a moppet whose world admits none of the artificial, prejudicial bounds Katharine personifies. Cal and Will mark evolutionary links along a way that spans 50 years. What a difference a half-century makes!
By the text so far, you see McNally loaded a lot to think about in “Mothers and Sons” And I haven’t gotten to the motivating crux of the piece. Katharine, Andre’s mother, turns up unexpectedly and unannounced one afternoon on the pretext of bringing Cal a diary that was found among Andre’s belongings, a diary she believes is rightfully Cal’s.
Katharine can’t bring herself to say what she really wants. She goes over old territory with Cal and maintains her rigid stance with Will, who seeks to be cordial and charming in spite of being miffed that Cal told the apartment building’s doorman to send Katharine up to their flat.
Cal and Will are settled. Buddy is certainly is a secure, nurturing home with one Dad who makes oodles of money as a financial consultant and another who is free to stay home and be there with Buddy.
Katharine, by contrast, is adrift. She finds herself in Texas, a place to which she was transplanted by her husband even though her roots, and heart, remain in her home confines of Westchester County, N.Y., the deeper source, perhaps, of her traditional thinking. She also finds herself alone. Her husband is dead. Her son is dead. Her friends are few. All of this loss, and Cal’s apparent happiness fuels Katharine’s anger and stubbornness. A memory of Andre, through Cal, may be the only shred by which she can feel any semblance of kinship or experience the sentimentality she seems to crave. Even if, as Learned so vividly shows, she doesn’t know how to ask for it and may not be gracious enough yet to accept it.
For all it gives audiences to ponder, “Mothers and Sons” doesn’t seem to be a complete work. It takes a while for Katharine to thaw, a while during PTC director Wendy C. Goldberg plants Katharine stage left looking out a window while Cal is equally rooted stage right taking in the view from a different window. Then comes the discussions and blaming, after which Will enters and tries to take the measure of Katharine. Buddy’s inquisitiveness breaks some ice — informational, emotional, and sentimental — but something basic seems to be missing from “Mothers and Sons.” It scenes seem to cut-and-dried, too mechanically plotted. There’s an energy missing. You want to hear more of the play because you hope you will learn something more definite, more concrete, about Katharine’s decision to visit, and all matters discussed are interesting from a conversational point of view.
The question is whether anything happens that is dramatic in a way that is unexpected or doesn’t look like a well-ordered next move in McNally’s tightly crafted work. You feel as if you’re watching a series of literate, involving vignettes, or one long vignette, that never coalesces into a play.
You keep waiting for the breakthrough, but it never comes.
Of course, that might be McNally’s point. A mink-wearing leopard may be in need of change and determined to change but find it impossible to let go of her spots. Or her stance. Or what she claims are her values.
“Mothers and Sons” makes you a witness to smart discussion among intelligent people. It has some lines that stop you cold and some moments that chill your blood, but it doesn’t move you or even make you switch sides as varying points of view are bandied. The piece is as emotionally inert as Katharine. It is a catalyst for discussion and covers some vital ground, but it remains at the level of “interesting” and never rises to “moving” or “heartbreaking” or “intriguing” or “triumphant.” You watch and listen to it attentively while hoping one character will make a move or do something specific to force a searing dramatic act instead of a bunch of occasional upheavals.
“Mothers and Sons” is 21st century polite. Voices may be raised enough for Buddy to protest to Will and Cal, “You’re fighting.” Mostly, characters keep a civil tongue even when expressing the venomous, so one-liners and astute (or cynical) observations hit home, but they’re enjoyed intellectually and not with the visceral edges you’d like some of the byplay between Katharine and Cal or Katharine and Will to have.
High points are few, but you can’t help watching or listening to the quality and conviction of the arguments. The Philadelphia Theatre Company is especially well served by Michael Learned and Hugh Kennedy who give some angry bite and some kinetic spark to Katharine and Will, by Patrick Gibbons, Jr., who is precocious while remaining little boyish, and James Lloyd Reynolds, who seems more subdued but has the burden of managing Katharine, Will, and their meeting to contend with. Reynolds plays his pivotal with sincerity and a sense of being in a quandary, but Learned and Kennedy provide the energy and the tension.
Michael Learned finds the right balance of steel and vulnerability for Katharine. In confrontation, or challenged about her views, Katharine gives the answers that spring to her by rote. She has difficulty varying from what she’s always maintained, and though we know she came to Cal’s apartment to seeks some sort of rapprochement, she cannot veer from the positions that estranged her from Andre and kept her isolated for three decades.
Katharine can be feisty. Learned is quick with a retort. Her Katharine is nobody’s fool, and she will stand her ground or make a cutting remark when the occasion warrants.
It’s when Katharine is alone that you see the chinks in her armor. Learned relaxes Katharine’s rigid posture. She look around Will and Cal’s apartment with curiosity. Wonder about what life with Cal may have been like for Andre crosses her mind.
Though Learned shows a woman more at ease at having a moment that doesn’t require combat, defense, or sarcasm, she also shows a woman at war with herself, wanting to make a move but not being able to muster the resolve to do it.
Learned makes you question whether Katharine sticks by some of the things she’s been saying for the 30 years that account for Cal and Andre’s time together and the period since his death. She certainly gives you the impression Katharine is posing when she talks about being in New York for a few days before she embarks for Europe or when she speaks of an evening engagement that will tear her from Will and Cal’s apartment in a short while.
Learned may keep Katharine hard and non-resilient at her core, but we know she wants something sentimental from her visit to Cal. She just can’t bring herself to state what it is or to admit she actually needs or wants it.
Learned’s Katharine is precise. She is quick to correct when she is misinterpreted or misquoted. She also has no qualms about telling the truth as she sees is.
Katharine and Cal can have a conversation, Cal being conciliatory to his late lover’s mother. Will is more inclined to play a cat-and-mouse game and call Katharine on some of her biases and behavior towards Cal and Andre when they were a couple. Buddy is the melter. He brings out Katharine’s maternal instincts (or grandmotherly urges). He is also non-judgmental. He has no attitude towards Katharine but takes her as she comes. Though Buddy is talkative and willful, he charms Katharine and gives Learned a new side of the character to portray.
James Lloyd Reynolds plays Cal like a man caught in the middle. Which he is. Cal is the link between everyone, including the departed Andre. He is the one who has had a relationship, for better or worse, than all concerned. He is more solicitous to Katharine than Will is inclined to be. He treads lightly around her, even when he has to stand his ground about Andre being gay before he arrived in Manhattan and Andre being the one who broke their relationship’s fidelity, which is why he contracted AIDS while Cal did not.
Reynolds keeps Cal on constant tenterhooks. As the one in the middle, he tries to appease everyone in some way. He defends his decision to ask Katharine up to his and Will’s apartment to Will. He attempts to engage Katharine in looking at an old box of pictures that mementoes that include items from Andre’s childhood in Texas and his early days in New York with Cal.
Will corrects Cal when he uses a forbidden word like “Eskimo” instead of “Inuit,” or says something that is not in keeping with current gay thought. Cal takes the admonishment well, but he only lapses because all the rules Will know by heart are new to him. They’re today while Cal’s experience spans several periods, including some in which people were more relaxed and forgiving about minor trespasses of political correctness.
Hugh Kennedy is splendid as Will. Friendly and open while harboring resentment for Katharine, because of her attitudes and because she’s Cal’s former partner’s mother, Kennedy enlivens the PTC stage with youthfulness and a zest for both life and fatherhood.
Will is the natural host who would not be rude to a guest but will not brook it well when he thinks the guest is off-base. Kennedy is particularly curt when he tells Katharine he is not Cal’s second husband but his only husband because gay marriage did not exist when Cal and Andre were together.
Kennedy infuses Will with liveliness that spills over to the production at a time when it is critically needed, just when we require a break from Katharine’s austerity and Cal’s nervousness around her. Will, as the newcomer and as the representative of Generation Y, can be looser and more charming. Kennedy makes sure he is.
Patrick Gibbons, Jr. is adorably bright as Buddy, a child whose curiosity knows no bounds, and one who has been trained, especially by Will, to be attuned to offensive language and to ideas that don’t gibe with the tenets Will and Cal inculcate about fairness, diversity, etc.
Gibbons is so natural, you can barely tell he’s acting. He has a the presence of an assured actor. While it’s clear he’s a child, he understands the nuances of the role and makes Buddy a welcome presence on the stage.
John Arnone’s set did not seem gay in taste. The sofa was small and looked cramped. The room in general looked sparse. The set does provide a number of good playing spaces. Richard St. Clair’s costumes were on the mark.
“Mothers and Sons,” produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, March 8, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $59 to $46 and can be obtained by calling 215-985-0420 or by visiting www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.