Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: Mothers and Sons

Mothers and Sons world premiere by Terrence McNally at Bucks County Playhouse, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield. Featuring Tyne Daly.

Review: Mothers and Sons


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

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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