By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
Terrence McNally has a long history with Philadelphia-area audiences, premiering several of his plays here (he opened four at Philadelphia Theatre Company). For his newest, Mothers and Sons, he partners with a theater having its own sort of world premiere this season, Bucks County Playhouse.
In a way, it's an ideal partnership for this work - a theater revisiting its history as a tryout house, and a playwright revisiting his characters.
In 1990, McNally wrote a short drama, "Andre's Mother," about Andre Gerard, a promising young actor dead of AIDS, his mother Katharine, his partner Cal, and the uneasy connection among them. The piece was later expanded into a PBS American Playhouse drama, then presumably tucked away for 20 years.
But the world kept turning, HIV treatment evolved, and with the promise of long, healthy lives ahead, many gay activists turned their focus from AIDS-related causes to marriage equality. Perhaps McNally, much like the directors of the recent Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, wants to remind us that today's acceptance was built on yesterday's losses.
So it is that, 25 years after Andre's death, Katharine - played by Tyne Daly, a McNally vet, with turns in Master Class and Ragtime - visits Cal (Manoel Felciano) to drop off her son's journal, an artifact and reminder neither of them wants. She finds him prospering in an Upper West Side apartment with a Central Park view, a much-younger husband, Will (Bobby Steggert), and their precocious 6-year-old son, Bud (Grayson Taylor).
Katharine, now predeceased by both her husband and her boy, appears wrenchingly tight-lipped, her smile creasing her crow's feet without lighting her eyes. Cal, by contrast, spills over with amiable chatter and an undercurrent of New York-bred anxiety. And Will carries on around them, comfortable, speaking his mind, enjoying his son. It's a marked difference in three generations' attitudes toward American gay life. As Will whisks Bud off to bathe, Cal tells disapproving Katharine that he thought being gay meant he'd never be a father, while Will never imagined he wouldn't.
There are some affecting scenes in Mothers and Sons, directed with an empathetic touch by Sheryl Kaller. But at its core it's mostly long stretches of character exposition. Though a drama about mothers and sons, it tells us very little about Cal's and Will's own mothers, or what little Bud thinks of the "mother" concept.
More important, we don't get a sense of the larger struggles and losses of those who came of age during the AIDS crisis and lived to tell about it. Cal shows Katharine photos from a long-ago summer filled with beautiful young men. We never hear how they fared, and we should.
When Katharine's generation flips through dusty albums, they point out the departed, the sick. Cal's generation got there early, and with a magnitude that might put Katharine's own losses in perspective and allow them to understand one another. As it stands, McNally has written lots of talk, but little communication.
Mothers and Sons
Through Sunday at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope. Tickets: $29-$57.50. 215-862-2121 or www.BCPTheater.org.