THE BLOG

Terrence McNally's Generations of Gay Americans

03/27/2014 09:13 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

My client Edie Windsor has said that she moved to New York City from Philadelphia as a young woman in the late 1950s "in order to be gay." Edie's move happened just after her brief, failed marriage to her brother's best friend, a wonderful guy who deserved to be married to a woman who loved him the way he deserved to be loved, as Edie explained to him when they parted amicably. Why did Edie marry a man even though she knew she was a lesbian so many years ago? Because for Edie, as for so many others, living in the virulently homophobic culture of the time, the idea of living her life as "a queer" (Edie's words) was utterly inconceivable.

Indeed, feeling lonely after she had moved to New York, Edie in desperation called a friend and asked her to take her "where the lesbians go." Edie's friend took her to a restaurant in Greenwich Village which is where she met her beloved spouse, Thea Spyer, who she lived with for the next 44 years until Thea's death in 2010. There is no question that it is in part the power of Edie and Thea's great love story that led to the downfall of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Flash forward to 2014 and the 7-year-old son of the lawyer who argued Edie's case before the Supreme Court (that's me, of course). For our son Jacob, who lives with his two married mothers (at least one of whom, like Edie decades earlier, came to New York City from Cleveland "in order to be gay") and is surrounded by loving friends and family, the term "old-fashioned" describes older, non-animated movies like My Fair Lady or E.T. that were made before "men could marry men."

Terrence McNally's new Broadway play Mothers and Sons tells in terms far more moving that any incident in history or article possibly could how this happened -- how our world was transformed from that of Edie in the 1950s Philadelphia to Jacob today. Inspired by the characters in McNally's earlier work Andre's Mother about a young ambitious actor dying from AIDS which McNally wrote a quarter century ago, Mothers and Sons is the story of four generations coming to grips with the fundamental concept that gay people should be treated with the same dignity as everyone else, a concept so obvious to so many today and so completely foreign to so many when Edie first moved to New York City.

Given that it is said that any one generation lasts 25 years, it is fitting that McNally's latest play was written 25 years after its predecessor. Like any great work of art, McNally's play tells the story with the richness and complexity it so richly deserves. Each of the characters in his play represents a different generation and thus a different perspective on this historic transformation of American society.

Katherine, the mother of the late partner of one of the main characters, in a masterful performance by Tyne Daly, is a contemporary of Edie's. But as a straight middle class woman who grew up "on the wrong side of the tracks," who lived most of her adult life in Dallas, and who lost her only child to the scourge of AIDS, she still cannot fully comprehend what she lost or why. Cal, the older gay character, is a member of my generation who came of age during the Reagan era, and like so many of us, explains how he eventually got used to calling his spouse his "husband" and why that is so important for him today. Will, his younger husband, grew up in a generation where he always expected to be a father and where, at least from his perspective, being gay posed no impediment to having a child. And finally there is Bud, the 6-year-old son of Cal and Will, who like Jacob, really has no conception of the world in which Edie lived as a young woman. For Bud, having two dads is no different than not having a grandmother, as he charmingly explains to Katherine when trying to persuade her to assume that role in his life.

The play A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959, six years before the march from Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Terrence McNally's play comes much further along in the struggle for gay civil rights, after DOMA has been struck down by the United States Supreme Court and when 17 states (and counting) now permit gay couples to marry. But like all great works of art or literature, Mothers and Sons is able to explain far better how this historic transformation occurred, its impact on so many lives, and how the world that our children -- both gay and straight -- live in is so remarkably different than the world in which Edie Windsor, or Terrence McNally, or Terrence's character Katherine, grew up.

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 in previews at the Golden Theatre with an official opening night set for March 24th. 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 and tickets, visit mothersandsonsbroadway.com.