“Dead is better!” exclaims six-year-old Bud in Terrence McNally’s new play, Mothers and Sons. Bud has just learned, to his shock, what people actually mean when they say a person has “passed,” and what he’s really saying (even if he doesn’t know it) is that euphemisms don’t help. We should confront loss head-on, rather than hiding behind fancy turns of phrase.
In Mothers and Sons, now playing at the Golden Theatre in a production directed by Sheryl Kaller, McNally confronts an enormous loss head-on. His new play examines the lingering aftermath of the AIDS crisis and the generation that it ravaged, a history we have yet to fully comprehend. Our protagonist, Cal (Frederick Weller), lost his first love, Andre, to the disease 20 years ago, at a time when medicine hadn’t found a way to slow the virus’s progress. Eventually, Cal moved on, marrying Will (Bobby Steggert), a charming millennial thrilled with family life and too young to be traumatized by the epidemic.
Now things are good: Cal and Will are parents to the precocious Bud (Grayson Taylor), living in the most enviable apartment. Set designer John Lee Beatty has conjured the perfect Manhattan home, complete with high ceilings and a view of Central Park. Then one day, Katherine Gerard (Tyne Daly), mother of the long-dead Andre, drops by, bearing her son’s diary and a desire stir up the past.
Katherine can’t accept what happened to her son, or forgive herself for her homophobic behavior during his life. So she stays long into the winter afternoon, forcing Cal to hash out painful questions about parenting, love and loss, homophobia and gay rights. (Daly is striking as the bitter, confused Katherine — unable to understand the past, terrified to live in the present, but always quick with a sharp remark.)
McNally’s writing is filled with quiet sadness and peppered with much-needed pithy one-liners. Much of the play consists of an extended conversation between Katherine and Cal as they dip into Andre’s journal and pore over old photographs of Cal and Andre together (much tsk-ing ensues, as many of these turn out to be too risqué for Katherine’s old-fashioned sensibilities). This meditative tone is apt for a play attempting to confront such painful history. And it’s natural that McNally — who addressed the AIDS crisis in plays such as Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valor! Compassion! — would bring to our attention the still-urgent need to confront homophobia and register the full destruction of HIV/AIDS (even in an era of rapidly expanding marriage equality). Cal is a figure for changing times: He’s old enough to have lost his first love to AIDS, but young enough to have married his second love. Weller is sensitive in the role, and Steggert plays up the sweetness of his husband.
But for an author who has written so eloquently on these themes before, McNally runs out of new ideas quickly, and even at 90 minutes, the plot becomes repetitive. Katherine gets angrier and drunker, but her anguish stays the same. McNally also can’t resist preaching, indulging in lengthier, weepier speeches as the play wears on. By the end, I felt the way Cal’s husband did: Give that angry lady an Oreo, and show her to the door.