Terrence McNally is arguably one of the top three playwrights in the United States. His latest work, Fire and Air, will receive its world premiere here in Austin at the Zach Theatre in June.
It was 6 years ago his play Mothers and Sons had its first ‘outing’, an appropriate word as its topic is gay life and death. As the foremost chronicler of gay life in America, McNally hits the audience hard with a work that relies on cathartic raw emotion. It shows how various characters find their way to acceptance and a measure of peace 20 years after the death of Andre. The television play Andre’s Mother, which was aired in 1990, serves as the backdrop to this stage play, set in 2010.
The play in inaptly entitled Mothers and Sons. A far better title would have been Lost Generation, evoking the years of the 1980s and 90s when so many gay men died from a disease that no one understood. “It’s a lost generation,” we hear in the play. “It started as a paragraph and is now just a footnote.”
Director Jozef Zebediah writes about his time working in a hospital back then, and how he tried to comfort a 28-month old baby named Veronica who had the bad luck to be diagnosed with the same disease so identified with the gay community. She was totally unresponsive until one night she sat up and interacted with the only person who had ever expressed any love for her. The joy was brief. “That night,” Zebediah relates, “Veronica died. For the girl who taught me, in one swift moment, a moment etched forever in my soul, the healing power of love, I directed this play in honor of Veronica.”
The result is what was known years ago as a “three handkerchief play.” Quite a few people at the small theatre in Traverse City, Michigan, left teary-eyed after seeing this powerfully-charged production centering around the loss of a son and a partner 20 years ago, and the effect this had on the past and present lives of the cast.
At the center of the storm is Cal (played by Guy William Molnar), who has moved on from the loss of Andre and is now living with his husband Will (Derek Wooton). They have a surrogate son, Bud (Japheth Fishburn) who plays the part as a precocious eight-year-old.
All that would be fine if not for the looming presence of Andre’s mother Katherine (Diana Lett) who descends upon this happy family life as a revengeful force. She hurls a poisoned arrow at Cal: “Why did your life get better after Andre’s death and mine got worse?” Like Clytemnestra she too is intent on death, if only she could identify the man who infected her son, but this murderous intent is blunted by words from the past- words from Andre’s diary that are finally read after being sealed for two decades. Like a control rod in a nuclear reactor, Andre’s words act to prevent a meltdown, helped in no small part by Bud’s unexpected emotional attachment to Katherine.
Lett never leaves the stage for the entire 90 minutes of the play, and is wonderful in her portrayal. The tension was so palpable you could literally have heard a pin drop through the full run. The ensemble cast commanded the attention of the audience, and they got it.
“We all play parts,” McNally writes in this play. “Some we play so well we become the part.” As Aeschylus showed us 2,500 years ago when he wrote of Clytemnestra, those lines of McNally are an eternal reality in life and on the stage.
Mothers and Sons will be playing through June 8, 2019 at Old Town Playhouse in Traverse City, Michigan. Gay or straight, it is a must-see.