When I was growing up, "coming out" to your parents meant exiting the house and going out toward the lawn where the barbecue was -- carrying the platter of hamburgers and franks. There was, of course, a veil over what the term would eventually come to mean, one which has slowly -- thankfully -- been lifted, most specifically as a result of the marvel of the gay rights movement. To witness this progression has been one of the more disarming experiences of my life, as an artist and as a mother.
One of the things I love most about the theater is the opportunity it presents writers to react to a sea of change in our culture; and few topics have captured our nation's attention of late as much as the inherent need for equality. It is not surprising, then, that one writer in particular would once again tackle this topic head-on without blinking: Terrence McNally.
His new play, Mothers and Sons, refreshingly imagines a world that the backyard barbecue guests of my childhood could probably never have imagined: one in which an attitude of opposition (towards two gay men raising a small child) is treated as abnormal. A woman, past her prime, visits this "modern" family in a search of closure following the death of her gay son, twenty years prior, who once had a long-term relationship with one of the men. Her long-held disapproval comes bubbling to the surface during an especially emotional ninety-minute visit to this couple's Central Park-adjacent penthouse. And we feel sorry, not only for her loss, but also for the amount of time she has carried around her disapproving view of those who have "come out" and are living "normal" lives.
As an artist, the presentation of this complicated woman -- portrayed by the preternaturally gifted Tyne Daly -- excites me. Her struggle to accept her deceased son's former life becomes much more of a struggle for the character, Katharine, to accept herself. And yet she is very obviously deeply in love with the memory of her son. Mr. McNally has given Ms. Daly, and all future actresses who will tackle this role, the gift of a flesh and blood human who happens to also be a character in a play.
As a mother, the humanness comes to define this character, and her story, brings up all sorts of complex questions for me. How would I react in the same position? Are the mother's conflicting emotions towards her gay son relatable? While, unlike Katharine, I am an advocate for same-sex marriage, I can still imagine her confusion in facing a world entirely foreign to her, and so against the dreams she had for her child as he grew up. It is not hard for me to imagine Katharine as one of the parents of a friend from my childhood, dealing with a reality that was never spoken about at cookouts or graduation parties. The audience's ability to relate to Katharine -- whether we agree with her or not -- is the central challenge of the play, and ultimately its most profound achievement.
What warmed me, and undoubtedly warms the play, is the appearance of a six-year-old boy named Bud, the child of the couple, whose interactions with Katharine suggest the possibility of a new worldview. He certainly melted my heart by the play's end, and we are left wondering if he can melt Katharine's, too. In the same way, it feels as if a play like Mothers and Sons might actually be able to melt the hearts of those who sit in its audience who might have a conflicted stance on the topics the play so thoughtfully explores. It is an evening at the theater that, while serious, is nonetheless lightened by moments of unforgettable humor, largely supplied by Ms. Daly's extraordinary gifts for exposing truth through her shimmering soul, coupled with a talent for deft comic line readings.
It is an evening, in the end, that I wish I could have shared with my friends and neighbors who used to attend our backyard barbecues. Through no fault of their own, "then" was not the time to talk about such things; but as Mr. McNally's play proves, "now" is the only time.
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.motherandsonsbroadway.com.