BWW Interview: Frederick Weller's Extended Family Bonds
Frederick Weller, who plays Cal in Terrence McNally's latest drama, MOTHERS & SONS, brings an impassioned presence to this complex and vital role. McNally, a four-time Tony winner, has a rich history of creating profoundly entertaining works that touch on provocative themes of the day.
The back story is that Cal had been Andre's lover until his death from AIDS 20 years ago. And now Andre's mother, Katharine (Tony-award winning Tyne Daly), has unexpectedly arrived on Cal's New York doorstep. With a gift.
The 1988 McNally play, ANDRE'S MOTHER, dealt with life in the age of AIDS, and how that death affected those in Andre's life and in the gay community. Mothers and Sons, directed by Tony nominee Sheryl Kaller, is about the lives that continued after Andre's death. It opens with Katharine shocking Cal with her unexpected visit. She's unprepared to learn that Cal has since married Will (Big Fish's Bobby Steggert) and has a 6-year-old son, Bud (Grayson Taylor).
The play, unfolding in the expansive Upper West Side apartment of Cal and Will, is at turns funny and serious, especially when Katharine is challenged to face how society has changed around her. As she revisits the past with Cal she begins to see the life her son might have had.
Weller, who has been in Broadway's GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, TAKE ME OUT and in television's IN PLAIN SIGHT, among other roles, drew on his past performances in helping him find Cal's essential truth. "Many roles I've played helped me with this one," he said. "In a way the previous gay role I played helped, and I did research into gay culture. In terms of my character's personality, my role as a father has helped with everything," said the father of two.
Cal is at first guardedly optimistic that Katharine has mellowed with age and has finally become accepting of both her son's sexuality and Cal's loving relationship with her son. But the visit rapidly becomes contentious, and bitter tirades follow. Surprisingly, so does pointed humor.
"I need something from her for the sake of my late lover, her son Andre," Weller said. "I think I'm going to get it at first, and I want to reconcile with her.
"I soon discover that it's going to be a challenge when she just shows up 20 years later," he said. "I assume that she's changed like the country has," he said of a nation that now recognizes gay marriage. And in the midst of all this is a lot of humor, it's just another part of life, he said.
"But it turns out that she's quite stuck in the past," he added of Katharine. "As Cal finds himself becoming something he rarely is-confrontational-it becomes clear that we're talking about a love triangle." Cal feels compelled to defend Andre when Katharine becomes more combative about her son's real life.
"I feel a need to defend my late lover to force her to see who he was and appreciate who he was," Weller said. "And at the beginning of the play I have this need to reconcile largely for Andre's benefit. At the end of the play, I feel a need to confront her for his benefit."
Though their heated conversation is often angry and combative, there's an unmistakable bond of love they have for Andre, he said. "She's the only person that I can really talk to about him and who shares this affection," Weller said. "The important thing about their relationship is how she reawakens in me this deep affection for him. It's been 20 years and she also awakens a need to talk about him and to defend him," he said. "Which is why I'm drawn into conflict with her."
There's an undercurrent of resentment that Katharine harbors toward Cal, he added. "I get the impression that she blames me for her son's sexuality and that was not something I realized 20 years ago. His sexuality was not something that was discussed."
In both plays, Katharine knew Andre was gay but chose to deal with it through denial. "She knew, but her son was careful to protect her feelings. He knew she wouldn't be happy knowing the truth. It's suggested in the play that his father didn't even know. So the very early confrontation we have is all innuendo, especially with the diary she shows up with."
One of the unanswered questions raised is whether Katherine has read the diary. She denies reading it, but doubts are raised. "I assume she's looked at it," Weller said. "It's a kind of a bonding moment between us-neither of us wants to open the diary, yet..."
The emotional arc of the drama hinges on Katharine's ultimate acceptance of Andre and of Cal's evolution. "I think she's in need, she has absolutely nothing but her rage," Weller said. "She's still angry but part of the fact that she hasn't been able to move in 20 years has to do with her unresolved issues and the horrible things she's said to him on different occasions.
"Specifically, we have our conflict in this love triangle and in turn with our chemistry in how we approach the world," he said. "She lives on secrecy and the special bonding she had with Andre was over the secrets they shared throughout his life," he said. "She could have accepted him, but she never really did. She was extremely needy of him but wouldn't let him be who he was. I mean, she was still angry that he left home at all," he added.
"She had a concern that she made him gay even though she asserts that she didn't," Weller said.
With an ambiguous resolution that also shows a surprisingly sympathetic side of Katharine, Mothers and Sons is a study of human nature, including healthy doses of humor, said Weller. But what of the future of Andre's mother?
"There is a hint we might see more of her at the end of the show. She's a very amusing character in a dark and cynical way. Now, Cal's husband wouldn't necessarily be happy seeing a lot more of her," he laughed.
Mothers and Sons is playing at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. It runs 90 minutes without an intermission.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus