About six times a year, my mother and I would celebrate a random Wednesday as a "mental health day." We would play hooky from work and school, take a quick train into New York City, and enjoy lunch and a matinee. Growing up in a conservative middle-class Long Island community, it was easy to think that such freewheeling traditions only existed in our showtune-singing, freeish-thinking, theater-invested home -- in a home that fostered individuality. My parents, especially my mother, and eventually my father, raised me with a generosity of spirit that, as I got older, I was hopeful I could emulate when I had my own children.
When I went to study theater at Emerson College, I held onto the foundation my parents had set up for me. When they came to visit, much to my parent's surprise, they were exposed to a completely new world; perhaps even a new galaxy, for which they had no context. Emerson -- dramatic arts, closing out the 70s, pre-AIDS, ineffectual Carter, anti-Reagan, drugs, musical theater -- need I say more?! To their great credit, their unconditional love for me trumped their preconceived opinions (and there were many with certainty); they figured out a way to accept me as part of a new generation who were thinking in new ways, as opposed to the somehow evil or strange bunch of vagrants the old guard made us out to be. In a way, we learned a new way to love and understand each other during those years -- instead of them just teaching me, I was contributing to the proceedings.
I've come to cherish memories of those years, not to mention the memories of my mom and I and our Wednesday matinee "mental health days," which we continued even after I moved away to Boston, and again when I moved back to New York; all the way up until my mother died very suddenly at the age of 52. I was 29 at the time, and newly married to my husband, Scott. Sadness was followed by great joy when we had our first daughter, Tobey, almost a year to the day after my mother's passing, and Tess followed two years after that. I was scared to raise children without my mom there to guide me, until I realized that through their love and example, I already knew how to raise my girls: with unconditional love, tolerance and a little dose of healthy judgment to keep them in check.
Watching Tobey and Tess grow up in a small, surprisingly conservative town in New Jersey functioned as a transcendent period in my life. For as much as I hope I emboldened them the way my mother had emboldened me to be the woman I've eventually become, it nonetheless moved me to observe them as they turned into young women; and more-so, young women with dangerously strong opinions -- opinions that I personally hadn't formulated until I was much older than them. I vividly remember the day that Tess -- at six years old -- explained to her friend (who had asked) why our two male friends slept in the same bed. "Because that's where they sleep!" As if it was nothing. Her friend was not nearly as clear on the subject. But somehow, Tess had already gotten it. I smiled, but also observed the world anew, generations at odds. At age six, it would have never occurred to me to answer this way. For Tess, at age six, she wouldn't have known any other way to respond.
Having been given the privilege to direct Mothers and Sons by Terrence McNally at the Golden Theatre, I feel infinitely blessed to contribute my own experience with my parents, and my time as a mother, to a play that deals with, among other things, the complicated clash of values and perspectives between the generations. Katharine (Tyne Daly) will not accept her son's homosexuality, his death from AIDS, or his ex-partner's new husband and son. Cal (Fred Weller) is Katherine's son Andre's ex-partner, and is raising his 6-year-old son with his husband Will (Bobby Steggert). As Terrence so insightfully puts it, Cal never expected to have a child, whereas Will never expected not to have one. When Katharine is confronted with that, the very premise of the play takes me hurtling back to the first time my parents stepped foot on that Emerson campus.
Mothers and Sons begs the question: Do people change? Can they? Katharine would lead you, at the play's start, to believe that the world changes but that people cannot follow accordingly. My daughter Tess offers the counter-argument, as does Terrence's play itself. Which makes me ask: How does Terrence know my family so well? But even that feels insubstantial when I stumble upon the ultimate question: How does he know every family so well?
I've always held that being a parent -- which challenges your every physical and emotional fiber -- is grounded in one simple core practice: "You gotta show up for your kid." I learned that from my parents. My mom identified a "mental health day" as going to a matinee. I continued that tradition with my girls, although I let them choose what those days would be. Each generation carries residue from the one before. The full extent of my parents' fear about my generation never developed as their deaths came too soon, but I know that it would have persisted (as mine persists today) with my fear of the world that my children are growing up in. My children know that to be true because I've told them, just like my parents told me. And with their knowledge comes an absolute lack of understanding as to why anyone thinks differently. But us mothers, we know both sides of the story. We've been there. So has Katharine and Cal and Will. So has Terrence. And the world he paints shows the responsibility we all have to change in the face of change. It may not feel good at first, but as I say every time we cut or rearrange a piece of writing or blocking in rehearsing this play, "this is a change, and change is good!"
As a tribute to my mom, a picture of her sits on the mantle of Cal and Will's apartment onstage at the Golden Theatre every night. The reason why? Cal and Will are the same kind of parents -- they might not know what the hell they're doing in a world that keeps swirling around them, but they're showing up. Katharine shows up at Cal's door. Because of -- or maybe in spite of -- the way they were all raised. Their adorable son, Bud, is enviably unaware of the struggle that led to him now living with two such parents. The old in me fears for what Bud does not yet know; the new in me has such great hopes.
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 www.mothersandsonsbroadway.com.
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