Terrence McNally's new play, Mothers and Sons, is not just about mothers and sons. And the play is not about money either, though money is subtext, occasionally showing itself as an element of the tension in this oh-so-21st century 'family.'
It is Terrence McNally's great talent to reveal that whatever pain befalls us as individuals -- no matter the specifics of that pain, all that matters is the conversation, the connections, the ability to be with one another in the face of life's most hideous passages. Better than most playwrights today, McNally illuminates our fundamental need for one another -- in family, in community, in intimacy -- and makes it okay. Needing, in McNally's world, is strength, not weakness. Connection is courage and truth, not neediness.
Mothers and Sons tells the story of a son lost, a lover moved on, and the reconfiguring of one family into another. Tyne Daly plays the imperious Yankee widow from Dallas, Mrs. Gerard, fully embodying a mother bereft and bewildered by the twists and turns of life that have left her so alone. But as the play unfolds and Mrs. Gerard allows herself to really see the extent to which her fears and hypocrisies helped engineer the loss of her son, way before the AIDS virus took him, the amazing Daly helps us see ourselves in the harsh, bright light of self awareness -- those awful, necessary moments when we become more real, more authentic, undefended by our untruths and denials. Perversely, these are often our finest moments -- certainly our most human experiences.
There is a moment in the play, when Gerard/Daly points to a piece of furniture on the stage, as though stabbing a human through the heart with a cleaver and says, "I could let that ottoman put me in a rage," and it seems the ottoman will vanish in a blast of flame she is so spitting angry. But Daly is just giving voice to the abyss of sadness and terror that waits for each of us, just around the corner from loss, across the way from fear.
This is a play so universal in its themes, so familiar in the silences and sad admissions of the characters, that it will speak to anyone who enters the theater -- whether their heart is open when they take their seat or not. Since seeing the play last Friday night (It has taken me this long to recover and process my own emotions, the play was THAT good.) I keep thinking of all the conversations I have with families that begin with words like 'how' or "what if'? So often these words cloak the anxiety of broaching conversations with one's children, spouse, parent, lover: (How do I tell my children....? What if they...?). Fill in the blanks. Our fantasies of what will happen when we speak truth to the most intimate people in our lives all too often drive behaviors that prompt the very outcomes we most dread.
I'm not a theater critic and I'm not hijacking the play for my own soapbox on financial education. But Mothers and Sons is a gift wrapped in a play I wish every family would see for the subtle, brilliant way it illuminates the way we assume, judge, indict, punish (and sometimes find redemption) whether in the context of money or love.
I hope fathers and daughters, sisters and brothers, stepsons and mothers -- all variants of the 21st century family -- make the trek to the Golden Theater in Manhattan to experience this loving, biting, comic, 'tear your heart out' evening in the life of Mrs. Gerard and her dead son's former lover, Cal, a role fully inhabited by Frederick Weller who is a compelling on-stage presence. I realized only after the play was over that I hated it every time he disappeared into the apartment's off stage rooms. In his leaving in each of those scenes I felt the nature of the man that Andre, Mrs. Gerard's son, saw in the very alive Cal. And Bobby Steggert and Grayson Taylor (who turned 10 on May 10!), show us the quirks, ticks, behaviors, endearments, and conundrums that remind us why, in the end, family is so vital, and the conversation is all.