“Mothers and Sons” Offers Optimism About Gay Civil Rights
When in Manhattan two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to see “Mothers and Sons,” author Terrence McNally’s sixteenth work. It is a brave play that, for the first time, examines same-sex marriage from the perspective of three generations.
It’s a four-character play headed by Tyne Daly who has played domineering women such as Maria Callas in Master Class and Gypsy Rose Lee’s “stage mother” in Gypsy. In this play, Daly plays Katharine Gerard, an embittered matron who has lost her son Andre to the scourge of the 80’s, Aids, and, more recently, her husband in their loveless marriage.
Under the guise of dropping in to drop off her son’s journal to his former lover, Cal Porter, whom Katherine hasn’t spoken to since the memorial for Andre in 1994, this Dallas matron is reluctant to take off her fur coat (which she is quick to announce is second-hand.). She says she is visiting Manhattan en route to Europe.
Cal is gracious, offering Katherine food and drink, but clearly doesn’t like her. This is not “Tea and Sympathy.” Katharine avoided her son when he lived with Cal in Manhattan due to homophobia. She not only hasn’t been in touch with Cal, but didn’t hug him the day of her son’s service. Cal, who lives in a well-appointed Central Park West apartment paid for with his money manager salary, still holds a box of photographs of Andre, as well as a poster of him as a Shakespearean actor.
Katharine takes a few of Andre’s photographs offered to her, but criticizes Cal for giving HIV to her beloved Andre. She believes that if Andre hadn’t loved Cal, he would have been straight and wouldn’t have died. Cal defends himself and tells Katharine that Andre was unfaithful to him, but that he took care of Andre to the end of his life: “it wasn’t even a possibility – relationships like mine and Andre’s weren’t supposed to last. We didn’t deserve the dignity of marriage. Maybe that’s why Aids happened.”
Cal’s Evolved, More So Than Obama
Cal has moved on and has seen enough evolving in the gay rights movement to where he can call his same-sex lover his “husband,” not “partner” as in a law firm, or” boyfriend” as in a teenager. (There is a hilarious discussion about the right term for one’s spouse in the play).
The quips turn to banter as Katherine waits for Cal’s husband Will Ogden played by Bobby Steggert to return to the apartment with their spunky six year-old child, Bud Ogden-Porter played by Grayson Taylor. Bud ingratiates himself to Katherine with Oreos, milk, and sweet affection.
Will’s Generation More Accepting
Will, a writer and “Mr. Mom,” hasn’t experienced the devastation wrought by AIDS. His generation, fifteen years younger than Cal’s, knows that anti-retroviral cocktails can prolong an AIDS-afflicted life unlike the death sentences that Andre knew. Cal is afraid that Will’s generation has become so complacent with HIV that “first it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote. It’s already started to happen.”
The Elephant In The Room
The elephant in the room is clearly Andre, symbol of Katharine’s bitterness, Cal’s loss or metaphorically, redemption and forgiveness. McNally’s hope in gay marriage is witnessed by Katharine who is amazed at the familiarity that Cal and Will have with each other, and the devotion that is displayed to their son. They are equals in their relationships and happy.
By the end of the play, Katherine lets her guard down, keeps her coat in the closet, hugs Cal, and acts grandmotherly to Bud. You get the feeling she is forgiven and is redeemed.
McNally’s tour de force has optimism. In a same-sex marriage himself, this author of Love! Valour! Compassion (95) and a former Texan who fled to New York via Columbia University, has couched his message with humor, giving Daly the best lines.
Tone Different in Kramer’s Play
The other gay playwright Larry Kramer doesn’t inject much humor in his plays, but vitriol, yes. His play The Normal Heart is being adapted for HBO. The play was revived in 2011, the same year that New York State legalized gay marriage.
It was an unflinching piece about the 1980’s AIDS crisis in New York, pointing fingers at President Reagan’s government for not paying attention to the plague, and for community organizations not doing enough for fear of outing its members. Kramer constantly “hits you over the head with his message.”
Kramer is an angry activist, still doing work with ACT UP. Although McNally, now 75, indirectly writes about AIDS, he is less combative. With McNally’s superb writing, the elephant in the room seems more like a tamed dog.
When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need To Know
For more detailed advice, see book, co-authored with a mother of a gay son and a psychiatrist, Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D.