Theatre Review: CATCO’s Mothers and Sons is a Moving Look at Memory
(Disclaimer: The performance I saw on February 11, 2016, was the last preview before opening. Elements of the show were still in flux and being polished prior to the opening.)
Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons, which opened on Broadway in 2014, is a sequel to his 1990 play Andre’s Mother (best known for its landmark PBS version), but doesn’t require any knowledge of that prior work. The first moment when the lights come up, with Cal Porter (David Vargo) and Katherine Gerard (Jacqueline Bates) in a fancy but slightly-old-fashioned Central Park West apartment looking through a wall of windows (into the audience) with him trying to amuse or impress her pointing out elements of the park and 5th Avenue across, tells you almost everything you need to know. After some small talk, Gerard asks where they’d gathered for her son’s memorial and Porter can point out the exact spot in Central Park.
She’s appeared on Porter’s doorstep, unbidden, after no contact since that memorial we’re told 20 years ago. They discuss Andre’s acting and a poster Porter’s kept all these years of Andre playing Hamlet, “sword in hand, crying vengeance.” That crazed desire for vengeance, even when the back of your head knows it isn’t worth it, motivates much of the action here. The salt in Gerard’s wound is the appearance by Porter’s husband, Will Ogden (Joe Dallacqua), and their son Bud Ogden-Porter (a charming Elliot Hattemer). As she lost everything, she sees this man, who she still blames for her son’s death, with a life that seems to have only gotten better since then. There’s a strong metaphor there for the way civil rights for gay men have blossomed in those 20 years, as Porter said, “Marriage wasn’t even a possibility [when Andre died], much less an option.”
The tete-a-tete between the grieving, rage-filled mother (it’s revealed she also lost her husband recently) and the man who stands in for a generation who lost people left and right, lost more people than anyone should have to in that short a period of time, and spent a long time trying to be happy again, is the meat of the play. On a level, sometimes submerged, sometimes torrents of bitter lava, Gerard blames Porter for Andre’s death of AIDS or, in a larger sense, for Andre’s being gay. So blinded by her anger, she doesn’t connect viscerally with Porter’s, even when he says, “Andre put me at risk,” and “I wanted to murder the world when he was diagnosed…we had to forgive each other.” As it diagrams the way people try to forgive to go on living, really living, and the hollowness that inevitably comes with a loss that great, it touches on other issues. The way love from a mother is expected and how that expectation can create ambiguous feelings as the mother sees her own life subsumed and then almost ignored. But mostly how grief and sadness can get buried way down but they surface at any moment, a great shadow under the ice that will crack and splinter without notice and when it’s least expected.
The main characters couldn’t be better cast. Jacqueline Bates turns the oft-played characters of the grieving mother and the suburban wife who finds an emptiness at the end of all that striving, and finds nuance and grit. In her marvelous performance she makes her character a distinct person, pulling out of the harsh gravity of being “Andre’s mother” and making her character’s inability to do so all the more heartbreaking. And David Vargo is nothing short of masterful. An astonishing look at how fragile scabs are, how close grief stays to the surface, and, especially in his nonverbal acting, how much work it takes to be happy. These two performances smooth over the material when it tends toward the cliché or wraps up too neatly, and they make the absolute most of the meatier material.
Mothers and Sons is a gripping and remarkably sensitive look at the the way people process grief , how long the hangover lasts, the power and difficulty of forgiveness and how hard it is to trust being happy again. It’s not a perfect play, some of the writing is too pat or even treacly, but McNally, one of the first and finest reporters on the human level of the AIDS crisis and the shifting attitudes in and toward the gay community, made a fine, human monument taking the temperature – moral, political, psychological – of today. No one’s better earned the right to that victory lap. Steven C. Anderson’s direction is perfect, using Michael Brewer’s set (with Darin Keesing’s lighting and especially Keya Myers-Alkire’s sound effects with Russell Boiarsky’s original musical compositions) to its fullest, showing the characters circling each other like wounded prize-fighters and orbiting around the black hole that is grief.
Mothers and Sons runs through February 28th. Shows are at 11:00am Wednesday, 8:00pm Thursday through Saturday, and 2:00pm Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit catcoistheatre.org.