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A View From a Son

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Last week, I attended the opening night of Terrence McNally's latest play, Mothers and Sons with my mom, Marilu Henner. The play represents, as announced at curtain call that evening, the first time that a legally married gay couple has appeared on a Broadway stage. (At first, I was excited to learn that the two lead actors had shared the blissful and overdue sound of chiming wedding bells, but I quickly realized they were referring to the characters.)

Another first was upon us when Bobby Steggert did what every other lead actor on Broadway is currently doing after their curtain call: In costume, but out of character, he asked for donations to Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS. According to Steggert, this was the first time such an appeal was appended to an opening night.

The extended post-show speeches and calls to action reminded me of an argument I had with a friend after seeing a performance of the recent revival of The Glass Menagerie. On that occasion, this friend took issue with the sudden insertion of the Equity Fights AIDS speech, and especially the actors standing in the lobby, even then still in costume, personally accepting donations. Never mind the fact that this context was one of the few in which a steady stream of twenty-dollar bills, a fraction of the cost of a Broadway ticket, could be guaranteed. No, my friend wanted to make the point that breaking the fourth wall in this way negatively affected the cohesion of the show. He would rather they didn't do it.

Despite realizing that this small-minded opinion meant my friend was choosing effeteness over empathy, and was therefore a pretty major asshole, I engaged in what turned into a very lively debate, especially since I could not disagree with his basic point: The Equity Fights AIDS speech changes the way you feel as you leave a show. The experience is given a different aftertaste, one that in most cases the play's author could not have intended. After a month, this intermittent argument reached such a pitch that my friend had to ask one of his NYU theater professors to weigh in. The professor's response: "Yes, it breaks the aesthetic sanctity of the performance, but you have to remember, when they started doing this, people were dying." My first thought upon hearing this relayed to me was "Of course." It is jarring to move from the illusory spell cast by these performances to a very real reminder that we are in a theater, an enclave from the actual. And this was, of course, the point.

I am 19-years-old, and I haven't personally known anyone who has died of AIDS, or who is living with it. In my college community, there is certainly STD paranoia, but fear of HIV/AIDS does not rank high among active discussion topics or concerns that are believed to be realistic. In the media of my lifetime, depictions of the disease are usually set distantly, whether in time or space. It is largely seen, in the United States at least, as something that happened, rather than something that can or will -- more polio than cancer, more Vietnam than Ukraine. I think I am beginning to understand why, for my friend and I, hearing the Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS speech seemed like not much more than an opportunity for an argument about aesthetics.

This new perspective is due in no small part to Terrence McNally's new play.

Mothers and Sons is a ceaselessly engaging chamber drama that revels in the slow revelation of conflicting wills. A mother and a lover reunite to do anything but talk about the long-dead man they have in common. It is, first and foremost, an actor's play, as we see each member of the cast come to terms with their own motives and undead enmities. Seeing the dam of repression and polite comportment break open within Cal, the ex-lover and one time nurse to the AIDS stricken Andre, and hearing the subsequent deluge of memories, filled with the pain of losing the man who should have been the love of his life, does far more than a strictly informative documentary or lecture ever could. This is the utility of theater, especially when it is aesthetically cohesive (one small point for my friend). Good theater can make humanity out of politics and wring emotion out of history in a way that a direct appeal for funds never will.

Even when Cal tells of the ravaging effects that AIDS had on Andre and the collective body of their community, a blatant expositional and emotional maneuver, I was sufficiently wrapped up in the honest specificity of McNally's encounters so as to not care. I can imagine others in the theater finding these moments rather redundant. For most of the first-class citizens of the Broadway world in attendance at last week's opening, much of the historical rehashing truly goes without saying. But in 2014, I venture to say that they are in a minority. Allegiance, a new musical set in a Japanese internment camp on its way to a New York premiere this year, would probably face a similar reaction in a room full of people who had been caught in the middle of that particular, now predominantly misunderstood and under-discussed injustice.

I imagine it is hard for those who lived through the height of the AIDS crisis to imagine coming at this play from a place of ignorance. But McNally has produced a work that acknowledges this perspective. He has favored the current and future few who are willing to approach his play and its history with both affable self-recognition and necessary solemnity, even if they don't have all of the facts straight. In the melee of remembrances to which we are all subjected, Mothers and Sons is a slam dunk for Terrence McNally and all those who have sought a proper monument for this particular crisis of theirs, significant not just to the veterans, but especially to my generation and the generations to come.

Addendum from Marilu Henner:

I was thrilled to attend the opening night of Terrence McNally's new Broadway play Mothers and Sons with my two sons, Nick and Joey. I was particularly moved when Nick, currently a sophomore at Columbia University, told me after the play had ended that it was not only entertaining for him to see, but also educational for him to learn about an epidemic that he did not live through and, therefore, had only understood peripherally. He compared it to my not having lived through the Korean War, but perhaps in my lifetime having seen a film or television show that, through its artistry, exposed me to truths that for others who had lived through it would see as self-evident. As a mom, I was proud that he had such a sophisticated and complex reaction to the play. Sometimes a night out at the theater with family is strictly fun. In the case of Mothers and Sons, the night out was not only wonderful, but also -- both as a play and in the reactions it generates for a young audience -- very moving.

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Few plays on Broadway today speak as urgently to our times as Mothers and Sons, the 20th Broadway production from legendary 4-time Tony® Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, now open at the Golden Theatre. In the play, Katherine -- portrayed by Tony®- and Emmy-winning Tyne Daly in perhaps her most formidable role -- visits the former lover of her late son twenty years after his death, only to find him now married to another man and raising a small child. A funny, vibrant, and deeply moving look at one woman's journey to acknowledge how society has evolved--and how she might, Mothers and Sons is certain to spark candid conversations about regret, acceptance, and the evolving definition of "family." Daly is joined by Broadway vet Frederick Weller (Take Me Out), Tony® nominee Bobby Steggert (Ragtime), and newcomer Grayson Taylor, under the direction of Tony® nominee Sheryl Kaller (Next Fall). For more information, visit www.mothersandsonsbroadway.com.