GENERATIONS LATER AIDS HAUNTS FAMILIES

Though Terrance McNally 2013 play is titled Mothers and Sons, a better title would be “Andre’s Mother Returns.” McNally is one of America’s acclaimed and venerable playwrights with 76 years and more than forty plays, musicals, screenplays, and television films under his belt including Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Master Class. McNally here has written a play about the legacy of AIDS for gay men of privilege, and how it haunts those a young man named Andre left behind—his mother and his lover— more than a generation after his death. Andre does not appear, as he has been dead for 20 years and (perhaps unfortunately), this is not a ghost play. It has been twenty years since McNally’s TV film Andre’s Mother appeared on the little screen, and in this play, he has given her a voice.  No doubt, he was emboldened by the venerable Tyne Daly, who originated the role.

In Seattle, Andre’s Mother Katharine Gerard is channelled through the fire and ice of Suzy Hunt, who carves the role out as her own. Katharine has travelled from Dallas to New York City, to find Cal Porter (the simple and authentic Evan Whitfield), the former lover of her dead son. Cal has married a much younger Will (the engaging and drop-dead handsome Jason Sanford), and with the expansive new laws of the US, proudly calls him “husband.” They have a son, 7 year old Bud, portrayed by the effortless and heart-stopping young Isaac Spence (who is as far as I am concerned, at the heart of the production), and are now a suddenly multi-racial gay family of, notably, fathers and son. Why has Katharine come? Does she want to blame Cal for her son’s death? Does she want Cal back in her life? My partner, a mother of a son, said she felt Katharine came back to find Cal because she is lonely, and longs to connect with the only person who may still hold her son in his heart. As it happens my partner was right, and as the play’s dialectic unfolds, it becomes clear that both mother and lover must tell each other things they had buried for years. Katharine is furious that Cal has replaced his lover with a husband when she cannot replace her son. She does yet imagine what Cal’s new family might offer her.

The actors are uniformly well cast and excellent. Though opening night jitters made some delivery stiff— feeling rehearsed instead of embodied— I feel certain the strength of the ensemble and the simple elegance of Makaela Pollack’s direction will lead to a tightening and a naturalizing of the rhythms in the play. This is quite an old-fashioned play, really. Unified in time, place and action, it unfolds on a single afternoon, in the fabulous apartment (another ingenious set by Christopher Mumaw who really knows how to use the space at ArtsWest) of Cal and Will. Overlooking Central Park, with views of Jackie O’s old apartment and the meadow where Andre’s memorial was held, the apartment and its luxury does not impress Katharine. The depth of her rage and grief connected to Andre’s death and her own loveless marriage is kept buried in a used fur coat that for some time she refuses to take off. McNally adds alcohol, which only Katharine drinks. The sparring in their conflict still needs calibration..the production almost climaxes too soon. But the humanity in their circumstance shines above all, and it is the honest and nonjudgemental acceptance of young Bud that helps to melt the ice with which Katharine has surrounded herself. The best scenes of the play are between inquisitive Bud and Katharine. I think it’s important to note that it is through the marvellous casting of Jason Sanford and Isaac Spence that this little family is portrayed as bi-racial.  McNally does not call for that casting in his script. In this post-racial rendering, the racial identities of this mixed family are never mentioned, as McNally never imagined this world. Still, in the work of this ensemble, the production does not render race invisible, at least not for me.  I found the casting, rather than “color blind” to be deeply and movingly, “color conscious.”  If only the worlds of McNally’s plays were more so.

The legacy of AIDS does not stop with the recoveries of gay men in America who are wealthy enough to live in a co-op on Central Park. Thousands die in Africa weekly, people of color in this country are still at great risk, and the struggles of mothers and young children born with the disease are rampant. Nevertheless, that is not the play McNally chose to write. Nor does he really explore the conflicts between mothers and their sons—here the mother is without a son, the parenting going on is by two dads, and the son onstage doesn’t yet question whether or not he even has a mother. What young Bud wants and doesn’t have is a Grandma. If McNally had done any research about the legacy of grandmothers helping to raise children in America, I’d wager he’d have written a different play. Oh well. Many good teachers have said to “write what you know.” This is the play he wrote, and ArtsWest gives it a sleek, fully satisfying production.

ArtsWest presents: Mothers and Sons by Terrance McNally and directed by Makaela Pollack, featuring Suzy Hunt, Jason Sanford, Evan Whitfield and Isaac Spence. Runs through February 11 at ARTSWEST, 4711 California Ave SW. in Beautiful West Seattle. Thursdays-Saturdays @ 7:30, Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Prices from $5-$37.50. Tickets at artswest.org/theatre/buy-tickets .

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