Chicago Theatre Review
Revenge, Repentance and Reconciliation
Mothers and Sons – Northlight
Twenty years ago Katharine Gerard lost her son Andre to the complications brought on by the AIDS virus. The young man had left his Texan home for the bright lights of New York City, hoping to begin a career as an actor. He was doing extremely well in the theatre, and was enjoying the newfound sexual freedom available in the Big Apple. But, during his longterm relationship with a young man named Cal, Andre became sick. While Andre’s mother, unwilling to acknowledge her son’s alternative life style, refused to help care for Andre, Cal never left his side. He lovingly nursed his partner through the most unpleasant horrors of the plague that was sweeping the gay community and finally buried Andre when his fight had ended.
Later, at a memorial service held in New York, Katharine eventually made an appearance but she stood silent, seemingly unmoved by her son’s death. There was no attempt at repentance for her lack of maternal affection, nor any reconciliation or sympathy shared with her son’s partner. Thinking it might offer Andre’s mother some kind of closure and understanding, Cal sent Katharine the thick leather journal that his partner kept over the years.
Some time later, Cal met, fell in love and married Will, another younger gay man. They now share a comfortable life in a condo overlooking Central Park, where they share the parenting of a young son, Bud. Then, one day, and without any warning, Katharine suddenly shows up at Cal’s door. She’s brought back her son’s journal, unopened and unread, with the purpose of returning it to Andre’s partner. In her heart, however, Katharine has arrived seeking some kind of revenge for her son’s death, but she ends up reconciling with both Cal and Andre, a feat achieved through a little boy’s innocent friendliness.
At 78 years young, the out Mr. McNally has lived through decades of gay history, from days of being forced into the closet to the emergence of equal rights and gay marriage. He’s seen the AIDS epidemic from its beginning, as a mysterious disease that took so many innocent lives, to the present, when medicine has finally been able to control the epidemic and reduce the death sentence once associated with the disease. All this and more he’s chronicled in several dozen comedies, dramas and musicals.
The prolific Mr. McNally has authored so many theatrical works throughout his illustrious career. They consist of “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Master Class,” “The Lisbon Traviata,” “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” “Corpus Christi,” “The Ritz” and “A Perfect Ganesh,” among others; his musicals include “Ragtime,” “The Rink,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “The Full Monty,” “The Visit” and “Catch Me If You Can.” Nominated for both the Drama Desk and the Tony Awards for Best Play in 2014, Terrance McNally’s 90-minute one-act is actually an extension of his short, televised drama, “Andre’s Mother.” However, as a play, this piece doesn’t feel as fully realized as his other works. It comes off more like a dramatized checklist of Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. There’s talk between Katharine and Cal of their shared feelings over Andre’s death, that include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and their ultimate acceptance. Cal has expressed his own acceptance by moving on. He’s found someone new with whom to share his love and he’s become a husband and father in this new relationship. Katharine, on the other hand, left alone now after her husband’s death, seems stalled emotionally in anger or, at best depression. During the course of this play, however, told in real-time, we see Katharine slowly evolve toward some form of acceptance.
A great deal of respect goes to talented director Steve Scott for how well this production has transformed McNally’s dramatic treatise into a well-rounded play. He’s beautifully crafted such a natural interpretation of the beats, the moments, encouraging his four characters to live and breathe as real people, rather than to simply be spokespersons for a psychological theory. It also helps that Mr. Scott has such sensitive, talented actors with whom to work. Cindy Gold is perfection as Katharine. As she tries to be strong and fierce, to maintain a poker face of neutrality, little by little her icy facade starts to crumble. After Katharine accepts her first drink, and then a second, and third, her feelings begin loosening and tumbling forth. Soon she finds her anger melting into a kind of acceptance, if not exactly compassion. Ms. Gold leaves us with a Katharine who is truly a work in progress and we can only hold sincere hope for her, as a fellow human being.
As Cal, Jeff Parker portrays a smart, verbal, caring man who hasn’t forgotten the thrill and joy of his first love. He’s simply made the decision, as Andre would’ve wanted, to move on with his life. He’s met someone new, a handsome younger man named Will, with whom he’s rediscovered the joy of living, rather than to be like Katharine and remain buried with memories. Mr. Parker is earnest, upbeat and, although Cal tries to keep his emotions in check, wears his heart on his sleeve. He is the heart and soul of this production. Benjamin Sprunger is excellent as Will. He has the difficult job of walking the fine line between being an outsider while still realizing the history and tension that exists between these two; trying to remain neutral and yet bringing some understanding to the table. As the one individual who never knew Andre, Will has to contend with and give space to two people whose share his memory. He holds his own admirably and, although he’s the youngest adult in the room, he holds a key to the final acceptance between Cal and Katharine. It is, however, their son Bud, as played by the straightforward young actor Ben Miller, who finally eases the tension, smooths the ruffles and brings union and care between all three adults.
This is an excellent production by director Steve Scott of a fragmented play that doesn’t feel quite fully formed. It’s more like a soapbox for Terrance McNally’s observations and feelings. It expresses how many people deal with death, separation and loneliness. It’s particularly the examination of a parent who never accepted the lifestyle of his gay son or daughter and then searches for someone on whom to blame for that child’s untimely death. It’s a reflection, too, on how far we’ve come in terms of gay rights and the advancement of medicine in controlling the AIDS virus. But mostly this play shows us how human beings connect and disconnect, how they become isolated from one another, and how they eventually learn to recognize their similarities rather than focus on their differences, and unite on some common ground.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 22-February 27 by Northlight Theatre at the Northlight Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-673-6300 or by going to www.northlight.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com