03/27/2014 01:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"Mothers and Sons": McNally's Report Card On Gay Life

Of all the social advances over the last 30 years, few if any has been more dramatic than the widespread acceptance of gay and lesbian people into mainstream American life. Terrance McNally's wrenching yet poignant play Mothers and Sons is a survey of that achievement measured through the eyes of the mother of a young man who died of AIDS and his former lover.

mothers and sons

Grayson Taylor, Frederick Weller, Tyne Daly and Bobby Steggert during the Broadway Opening Night Performance Curtain Call for 'Mothers and Sons' at the Golden Theatre on March 24, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Walter McBride/WireImage)

With an outstanding performance by Tyne Daly as the young man's mother and an excellent portrayal by Frederick Weller as his onetime partner, Mothers and Sons traces the progress of gay life since the onset of AIDS in the early 1980's and the residual anger and resentment of two people who loved one its victims.

McNally has been in the vanguard of the Gay Rights movement his entire career, and Mothers and Sons is a balance sheet of sorts, an accounting of what has been achieved against what it has cost in suffering. As always, he renders it with both humor and unflinching honesty.

The lights come up on Katharine Gerard and Cal Porter gazing out the window of Cal's Central Park West apartment. Cal is pointing out landmarks that he hopes will interest his surprise guest, such as the building across the park where Jacqueline Onassis lived, trying to break the ice that surrounds her like an igloo. He offers to take her coat. She pulls it tighter around her and says, "I'm not staying."

But she does stay, and for the next 100 minutes McNally uses the death of her son Andre 19 years earlier as a microcosm to explore with caustic wit and sometime rancor the gay experience then and now. Cal is now married to Will Ogden, an aspiring writer, and they have a son named Bud. As he recalls to Katharine about his time with Andre, "Marriage was not even a thought then, let alone a possibility."

Katharine has dropped in on Cal without warning. Her husband has just died of cancer back in Dallas and she is on her way to Rome for a holiday. She has not spoken to Cal since a memorial service for Andre in 1994 (the setting for a previous McNally play), when she refused to embrace him, though she has exchanged Christmas cards over the years with his sister.

mothers and sons

Bobby Steggert during the Broadway Opening Night Performance Curtain Call for 'Mothers and Sons' at the Golden Theatre on March 24, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Walter McBride/WireImage)

As Katharine and Cal navigate the potholes of memory lane, using faded photographs and postcards as a map, old bitterness begins to surface. Occasionally they hit a land mine and the explosion threatens to shatter the forced restraint with which this reunion is being conducted. Katharine still wants someone to blame not only for Andre's death but also his homosexuality. "He wasn't gay when he came to New York," she snaps at Cal.

When Will returns with Bud from an outing in the park the frostiness gets even colder. Will, who is 15 years younger than Cal, is something of a snob, smug and self-centered, and he has little time for nostalgia about the past. As Cal observes about AIDS, "First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote." For Will, it isn't even in the index.

But like young women who yawn at old war stories from the front lines of the Women's Lib struggle, or young black individuals for whom the dogs, beatings, and church bombings of the Civil Rights Movement are ancient history, many young gay citizens cannot fathom a life in the closet or the risk one encountered coming out of it.

It has been suggested that the scourge of AIDS was one of the reasons intolerant attitudes toward gay people began to change. Certainly, President Reagan never had much interest in funding AIDS research until his good friend Rock Hudson became one of its victims. As Cal muses at one point, "Maybe that's why AIDS happened."

Daly is a portrait of a lost, angry, and fearful woman. "I don't know how my life turned out like this," she says, and clearly has no clue that it is mostly her own doing. And Daly is a master at mining the mordant humor that McNally tucks into his dialogue. There are very funny moments in Mothers and Sons, and Daly makes the most of them.

Weller is a model of the gay man straddling two worlds, a veteran of the AIDS wars trying to adjust to a liberated life and unsure whether it was worth the price in suffering and loss. Bobby Steggert delivers a credible turn as Will, a young gay man who never saw the inside of a closet, and Grayson Taylor is cute as Bud, though at times he's hard to understand. Sheryl Kaller directs with a sure hand, especially in some tricky and rapid transitions from vitriol to banal patter.