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First Nighter: Terrence McNally's Must-See Mothers and Sons With Tyne Daly

03/25/2014 12:01 am ET | Updated May 25, 2014

Throughout the 1980s and starting with William M. Hoffman's As Is and Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, plays addressing the AIDS crisis appeared. By the mid-1990s when treatment advances began to be made -- still not enough progress, of course -- the subject faded from the stage.

As time has gone by, what can be termed post-AIDS-crisis works have surfaced, and Terrence McNally's Mothers and Sons arrives at the Golden as instantly foremost among them.

Not only is it a first-rate work, but I'd say that McNally, with whose dramas, comedies and librettos I've often found fault, has just written his best play -- or if not his absolute best, up there with Love! Valour! Compassion! and the not completely successful Lips Together, Teeth Apart.

I can't say enough about the complex emotions carefully observed and translated to the stage that the prolific playwright -- represented on Broadway for more than 50 years -- covers in his intermissionless 90-minute four-hander. I can say that his empathy with and patience for his characters and their intertwined conflicts are an example of superb playwriting maturity.

I can also say that anyone leaving Mothers and Sons not having been shaken to the core about a situation that profoundly unsettles lives for which few easy resolutions are available had better consult a cardiologist immediately.

McNally begins his work with Katharine Gerard (Tyne Daly) in a mink coat and the casually dressed Cal Porter (Frederick Weller) at the center of John Lee Beatty's detailed notion of a comfortably swanky New York apartment. They're staring directly in front of them. As director Sheryl Kaller times it, they stare in stark silence for perhaps a full minute before either of them speaks.

At that point, Cal begins describing the Manhattan view they're taking in, and it slowly becomes clear that Katharine is the mother of Cal's deceased partner Andre. It also becomes clear that Cal is now married to Will (Bobby Steggert) and has a 6-year-old son, Bud Parker-Ogden (Grayson Taylor). What doesn't become clear -- given the way motivations can be maddeningly ambiguous -- is why Katharine has dropped in unannounced. Her returning a diary Andre kept and Cal had sent her is eventually offered as the reason, but it's patently not the full one.

When Will and Bud return from their trip to Central Park, it's evident that Will is much younger than the 49-year-old Cal. His age becomes a factor in the inevitable discussions that develop. Resentments between and among Cal, Katharine and indeed Bud, who has been living with Cal's persistent memory of Andre, emerge.

Katharine, an Easterner who moved to Dallas with a husband whom she never loved and has always felt isolated from her surroundings but for the devotion she lavished on Andre, hasn't yet recovered from Andre's death and the plague's cause for it. On his side, Cal harbors an aversion to Katharine for her sustained absence during Andre's terminal illness.

And those are only the more apparent irritants propelling McNally's exchanges into deeper and more inextricable differences. Who is wrong in his or her reactions and behavior becomes a point of suspense. Even more cogent is whether there is a right or wrong but rather only a painful condition impossible to sort out to anyone's satisfaction.

The now widowed Katharine, money manager Cal and Bud, a writer who's had a story published in The New Yorker, are intelligent people, although there are times when intelligence isn't the be-all-and-end-all, and this is one of them. Bud is a sweet child obviously enjoying a happy childhood (not that Katharine is convinced), and his presence does offer soothing moments.

As the adults try to bridge their differences, assumptions and misunderstanding, McNally has them express their positions often in anger but usually in anger with insight. No need to quote at length, but among the stand-out outbursts is one Will makes about AIDS, the most devastating years of which he admits he missed. He says not polemically but with the author's fury behind it:

"'What Happened to Gay Men in the Final Decades of the Twentieth Century?' First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote. People will shake their heads and say, 'What a terrible thing, how sad.' It's already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away."

The play is crammed with similar outraged responses to how personal and public events have gone down. Lighter assays show up, too, and none more amusing that Cal's explanation for how comfortable he's become with invoking the word "husband," now that he's married, and how dismissive he is of the word "spouse." This is an accommodation many same-sex male couples are reckoning with, certainly in the New York City where Cal and Will reside.

McNally does a nice job of making Andre's diary register. Without going into it here, it should be sufficient to note that it eventually serves a significant conciliatory purpose. It's almost as if until that leather-bound book with Andre Gerard's initials on it is dealt with -- and which neither Katharine nor Cal want to hold on to -- not even a glimmer of hope for their peace of mind can be reached.

Because there's so much to say in favor of this latest addition to McNally's canon and because there's more to be said for which there isn't room enough here, it's taken this long to heap praise on Kaller's ultra-sensitive direction and the cast members' performances. The place to begin is by saying their contributions are on a level with the play's quality.

Playing a woman with a much harder exterior that she generally takes on (well, she was Mama Rose once), Daly is able to establish that tough shell and then earn sympathy when declaring after much combat with Cal and Will, "Everything I say is inappropriate." To her credit, Daly, who rarely does anything that doesn't redound to her credit, never even hints at sentimentalizing Katharine.

Weller and Steggert, both of whom also have also accumulated worthy resumés, add to them with important portrayals. Cal and Will are angry men but at the same time visibly caring fathers, and those attributes are displayed throughout. For his part, young Taylor is not only letter perfect but pitch perfect as a boy who loves his two dads but wishes he had a grandmother to add to them.

McNally -- who has certainly been touched very personally by the AIDS epidemic and for whom this script may be more autobiographical that others of his -- wants to make certain that the possibly unexamined ways in which the disease has rippled through the society isn't ignored and just as equally that its continued presence isn't overlooked. With the hard-nosed yet forgiving Mothers and Sons, he's achieved his high quality goal. May the play never become a footnote.