An evolving concept of family and lingering hurt well after the heart of the AIDS crisis
Beck Center's 'Mothers and Sons' is poignant, powerful theater
If you haven't already accepted the fact the definition of "family" has changed with the legalization of gay marriage, Terrence McNally's taut, unapologetic and riveting play "Mothers and Sons" will serve as a stark reminder.
Nowadays, the Porter-Ogden home, designed with detail and a homey aura by Richard Gould for Beck Center for the Arts' splendid production, on stage through Nov. 15, could be any residence you'd enter during these waning months of 2015.
But if the makeup of this family is the polar opposite of the traditional nuclear household comprising a mother, a father, children and the family dog, it's the new norm.
That's not to say everybody's ready for it.
Far from it, for some, the definition of family could be evolving at such a breakneck pace, they might feel like someone who suddenly must use Pinterest after decades of using a typewriter.
Such a person, in award-winning playwright McNally's beautifully observed, heartfelt, multi-award winning work, is lonely widow Katharine Gerard.
The poor woman doesn't even realize people nowadays are searching for dates on the Internet, let alone they're marrying others of the same sex and having children through an anonymous donor. Time for her is speeding by faster than one of those bullet trains in Europe as you stand at the edge of a station.
Before the play begins, somebody infected her son, Andre, with AIDS and he succumbed to the disease while he was the boyfriend of another gay man, Cal Porter (gay marriage wasn't recognized when the two were together). When the play opens, it's obvious the country has recognized gay marriage for at least a while and Porter has tied the knot with Will Ogden, whom he met online and then in person at a restaurant.
Gerard has arrived, unannounced, at the Manhattan apartment. It faces New York's Central Park, where their 6-year-old son Bud lives with them. Porter has arrived to retrieve one of Andre's belongings.
But before she leaves, she'll have to come to grips with what could've been for her late son's life, her own unpleasant time as a parent and wife and whether Andre will become but a footnote, if that, in history. Lighting designer Trad A. Burns keeps the lighting soft at first, creating a somewhat dark aura, reinforcing Gerard's uneasiness. During less tense moments, the lighting grows brighter, until it's fully bright at the touching, heartfelt and hopeful end.
For a roughly 95-minute, intermissionless, deceptively simple play, it's meaty material.
McNally, a highly-respected, skilled, diverse, multi-award winning playwright known for writing about gay themes, challenging audiences views and suggesting possibilities, reminds us that the after-effects of the AIDS crisis is still felt in 2015.
McNally makes us ponder the changing landscape of the family unit, how the legalization of gay marriage might affect some and how "normal" is such a subjective term. For 6-year-old Bud, innocence and all, his living situation is normal; it's all he's known in his thus far short existence.
Gerard might (understandably) be a bitter, cold woman, but McNally doesn't toss blame at anyone. We hear, and can sympathize, with each person's point of view.
That's true whether Gerard is lashing out at Cal for moving on with life --- and possibly having infected her son ---or whether the two men try their best to show her compassion, even if they sound defiant and unapologetic in choosing to marry, can't understand the magnitude of her feelings as a mother who lost her son and want to enjoy raising a child whom they love.
One of the strongest aspects of the play that draws us in to these lives -- and your eyes and ears will be trained to the stage, guaranteed -- is our shifting sympathies between Gerard, the frustrated Cal, who pours his heart and soul out to Gerard to convince her Andre meant everything to him and Will, who wants to get on with life and hear no more about Andre.
The play also carries some nice symbolism; it takes place during a "blustery and very cold winter's day," the shortest day of the year. Gerard, at one point, remarks that it gets dark so early; there's no transition between daylight and dusk. Such symbolism stands for how fast the family unit has changed, with basically no transition. It's also no accident that in the play, Andre's portrayal of "Hamlet" is repeatedly mentioned. Gerard's may be conflicted and dizzy from such rapid change, but at one point she mentions she wants revenge for her son's death; she's basically a female Hamlet, out to avenge her son's too soon departure from Earth.
Under Sarah May's expert direction, knots of tension grip the stage, particularly during scenes between Gerard and Cal. As portrayed deftly by Catherine Albers and David Bugher, respectively, these individuals are clearly uncomfortable in the same room with each other. Cal folds his arms and wipes his face in exasperation while the grieving mother paces, her eyes dart from one spot to another, she claps her hands in front of her and fiddles with her fingers, pocketbook and tissues. They often stand at a distance.
Albers is shockingly natural as Gerard. She captures, through voice and gesture, bitterness, impatience, nostalgia, sadness and fear that her son will be forgotten with such seemingly effortless conviction, you feel you're watching Gerard, not her character, breaking down in front of you. She's obviously fully inhabiting her role, and she appears to choke up on the spur of the moment.
Gerard also impressively communicates with little Bud, capturing a loving and amusing tone of voice.
Most importantly, Albers avoids making Gerard a hateful homophobe or bigot. We feel for her, and we care about her plight, because this Gerard's no monster, but very human.
Ditto for Cal, whom Bugher deftly plays as a high-strung, outspoken man who matches Gerard's intensity in frustration as he tries to convince the grieving mother how much Andre meant to him. In a multifaceted performance, Bugher also shows a compassionate side, willing to take Gerard's coat, offer her a drink or make her feel at home in another way.
Scott Esposito conveys a more carefree, dreamy persona as Will, the younger half of the couple, who also drips disapproval at Gerard for barging into their home and bringing Andre back up.
Both men make their characters loving fathers and show no hint of resorting to stereotype. However, the oddly multi-colored socks Will wears reinforces the stereotype in my eyes. Also, Gerard's costume is too colorful for her dreary mood.
Will and Cal find themselves in no such state of emotion, and the two actors convince us that Will and Cal are a loving couple who have every intention of remaining together.
Eight-year-old Ian McLaughlin is sweet and lovable as the child, but director May needs to get him to slow down some and project more; Bud says some of the play's most touching lines, and we need to hear them clearly -- especially in a venue as intimate as Beck Center's studio theater, with the audience configuration shaped like a right angle.
Overall, the intimate venue contributes to the power of this tense, attention grabbing and keeping production.
"Mothers and Sons" may not offer closure. We never find out who infected Andre. But what it offers is hope and comfort and the possibility that forgiveness is possible amid a vastly changing, unrecognizable and upsetting society (for some, at least) that comes with it.
Andre's mother, a lost soul who had considered suicide, can't help but feel that hope and comfort by the play's end.
She might even find it in her heart to forgive.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Mothers and Sons"
WHEN: Through Nov. 15. Curtain times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday as well as 3 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood
For ticket information, call 216-521-2540.