Mothers and Sons, by Terrence McNally. Directed by Cathy Lee-Visscher. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"You should have held me, too, there in the park."
Ely Loskowitz, Dylan Widjiono, Paul Murphy; photo: Joanne Sikora
On St. Patrick's Day I saw the opening performance of Terrence McNally's play about family, parental love and the devotion of unsuited partners, "Mothers and Sons," at the Ghent Playhouse and I was reminded of things I had rather forgotten. Things my own mother said to me betraying her certain selfish goals for me came rushing back. Things I'd heard friends relate about their parents lack of understanding at the worst of times. Things I had been through in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. St. Patrick may never have actually been canonized, I understand, and certainly the character of Katharine Gerard should never be submitted for sainthood. Perhaps McNally deserves the honor for bringing to the fore the issues that assailed gay men in the 1970s that still have not deserted our society today, though they seem to have taken a backseat to politics, or the lack thereof.
This play was written for Tyne Daly who played it on Broadway. I saw that production and was riveted to my seat by her performance. She was mesmerizing as Katharine, riddled with guilt, visibly disturbed in her skin and her surroundings, angry about unresolved issues and the assumption of guilt. In Ghent the estimable actress Wendy Power Spielmann brings a host of other qualities to the role and she is as successful as her predecessor. Her Katharine is a more sober creature, still angry, still guilty, but less obsessive about her place in the world. Spielmann instills an imposed calm in her character, an unwillingness to be ruffled. She allows Katharine to show fallibility in the smallest of ways only to recover her composure quickly and to suffer no idiots along the way. When her emotions spill out, as they must, this actress gives them full force multiplied by her physical weight which holds those urges in check letting her needs shine through a harder though opaque shell. She was effective and colorful and being so allowed the script's flaws to slip through the author's cracks and the man himself to appear on stage through her work.
It is a flawed script, one of McNally's most interesting takes on the lives of Gay men in New York City. It lurches its way from light comedy to harsh drama and back again, the transitions relying on director and actors to make plausible which is not always easy. This company of players under the clean and clear direction of Cathy Lee-Visscher does well with most of the transitions but in the playing of the work and hearing the responses of the audience the few really difficult moments should smooth out and be wonderfully played.
The man Katharine has come to see, Cal Porter, was her son Andre's lover twenty years earlier. He is someone she has not kept in touch with since Andre's memorial in Central Park. Their reunion in his Central Park West apartment is both touchy and touching, tremulous and tremendous. Cal is played by Paul Murphy who does some wonderful work in the role. Cal has never forgiven the woman for ignoring him when her son died of AIDS, has never forgotten her accusation about Cal "converting" Andre, an actor, to homosexuality. Murphy addresses these issues with restraint and control and they become more real as a result. His devotion to the son he shares with his husband Will is clear from the outset and his respect for both of the men in his life is presented without sentiment and without angst. Murphy's Cal is an open and honest and true human being for whom respect is just a tad more important than love. It allows his scenes with Katharine a certain edginess that keeps the play moving from one distant pole to another.
Ely Moskowitz in his debut here plays the child in the picture, Bud Ogden-Porter. He is a charmer and brings that genuine childlike quality to his role. Remarkably he bears a slight resemblance to the actor who plays his biological father, Will Ogden, and that lends an authenticity to the play that culminates in an adoption that could alter all of their lives permanently.
Will is handsomely played by Dylan Widjiono, a relative newcomer to the company in Ghent. In this role he has a true command of the stage and the situation playing out in front of him as Cal and Katharine battle over ghost situations that should no longer hang either of them out to dry. His voice and his physical manner never scream anything but sincerity and it is his performance at the center of things (along with Loskowitz) that holds the play together so nicely. There are moments when just his presence on the stage serves to keep things pleasant and, given the situation they are in, this is a wonderful asset to have on hand. Realizing his husband has never fully put his past behind him, Widjiono's Will even allows himself to stop saying things that could aggravate and simply move himself into a better place carefully pulling Murphy's Cal with him.
Cathy Lee-Visscher has found some wonderful things in this play on which to focus. She presents the awkwardness of the relationship between Cal and Katharine in a too-constant standing so that neither one has the control. She has also designed and helped construct a set that you could live in, with even a hint of the kitchen, viewable from house right. She and her stage manager will hopefully fix the frame of a show poster that figures heavily into the plot so that the play provides one more hint of reality. Other than that her work is exemplary and the play is made even more worthwhile seeing.
Technically the Ghent Playhouse team has done nice work. Joanne Maurer's costumes perfectly fit the people and their situations. Isabel Filkins lighting is very good (though fading sunset and street lighting would help a bit). The very real situation is borne out in the very real production values.
This is a tough play and the Ghent crew have done a wonderful job of making it come to life on their stage. I liked it enough to want to see it again and to discover how audience reation has helped shape the performances. I'll do it if I can. Maybe I'll see you there, watch and listen to your reactions and see if my sense of this production is right. You know what? I know what I saw and I mean what I say. I liked this a lot.
Paul Murphy, Wendy Power Spielmann (rehearsal photo); photo: Cindy Smith