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BWW Review: Poignant, Compelling, MOTHERS AND SONS Captivates at Beck

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

In her directorial notes for the Beck Center's production of Terrance McNally's MOTHERS AND SONS, Sarah May states, "I was so struck by this play when I saw it on Broadway. Here was an unwritten chapter of the terrible AIDS Crisis!"

As a counselor at the Chase Braxton Clinic in Baltimore and then at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in D.C. in the mid-'80s, I can attest to the angst and strain of the era. Telling someone during those years that they were HIV+ was giving them a near-death sentence. There were no proven drug protocols, the federal government was doing nothing to provide funds for a search for a cure, some hospitals wouldn't take AIDS patients, and even funeral homes were denying their services.

May goes on to write, "What happened to all those parents who did not show up when their sons started dying?" As she states, "Thousands of parents simply turned their backs and were in complete denial." Often, when I called a parent to say their son was ill, I had phones slammed in my ear. Others said that their child was receiving God's wrath for their immoral ways, or that they didn't care.

Things have somewhat changed both in dealing with the illness and for gay youth and young adults. There are now cocktails for those with the disease and the diagnosis isn't necessarily a death sentence. Many parents are now accepting, if not condoning the gay "life style." But, many gay youth are still being "sent packing" by closed-minded parents. They often become homeless street kids, sometimes having to turn to prostitution to get by. Statistics show that gays are the highest demographic among teen suicides.

McNally has spent almost fifty-years spotlighting the changing world of gay life in America. In his MOTHERS AND SONS, he not only chronicles the angst of the AIDS crisis at its peak, but depicts the "new kind of American family," gay men married, often with children, who have the same "foibles of every other family."

As the lights go up on MOTHERS AND SONS, a woman and man are looking out a window. We quickly find out that the mature woman, Katharine, lost her son, Andre, to AIDS almost 20 years ago. The man is Cal, Andre's former lover.

Andre, a promising actor, died in his late-twenties.

Katharine is rigid, angry, fragile, seemingly about to break. She lacks humor and, as we come to find out, compassion. She rejected her son's being gay, and in the process rejected him as well. She came to his memorial service, but was deeply offended by the light tone of the goings on, refusing to both participate and recognize or embrace Cal. She seems uncertain as to why she has now, after all these years, come to visit Cal.

Cal, a former actor, now a financial broker, who physically cared for Andre during his dying days, has moved on. After eight years of mourning he met Will, a younger man, via an on-line dating service. They are now married, and the parents of Bud, their pre-school-aged son, produced through artificial insemination, using Will's sperm and the services of a lesbian friend. They are a glowing example of the "new" family paradigm.

Katharine is bitter that Cal has found happiness, while she remains caught in the past, filled with regret over the death of her only son, having been trapped in a loveless marriage, now a recent widow, living in the unsophisticated state of Texas, and friendless. Unable to confront her situation, she even refuses to go for mental health counseling, reluctant to share herself with another person.

As she observes Cal and Will father their precocious son, show outward affection for each other, and live their lives in a Park Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park, the uncomfortable reunion results in an emotional merry-go-round, charting her few gains and many losses. Her curtain-closing conversation with young Bud is heartbreaking.

In 90-minutes McNally exposes the changing gay life-style. He starts with the AIDS epidemic, when there was a lack of treatment, to the present when there is still no cure, but an ability to contain the disease through scientific protocols. He continues the journey by examining the language changes as "gay marriage" replaced relationships labeled as "partners," and "boy friends," and finally the acceptance of the term "husband." He also explores the more open living together status, the showing of affection in public, and the acceptance and expectation of gays having children. He also highlights the severe divide between generations and areas of the country in acceptance of many of these changes.

MOTHERS AND SONS ran on Broadway from March, 2014, logging 104 performances and 33 previews with a cast that included Tyne Daly, Frederick Weller and Bobby Steggert.

The Beck production is compelling! Sarah May obviously understands the script, the societal underpinnings and the gay community. She superlatively hones the characterizations, and paces the show so the impact of the meaningful speeches are crystal clear, while holding the audience's attention.

Catherine Albers does not portray Katharine. Albers embodies Katharine. She is Katharine. Nervous hand gestures, constantly arranging and rearranging her clothing, displaying emotions with a pinched face and fake smiles, she clearly conveys frustration, defeat, and anger. This is a masterful performance!

David Bugher is Albers equal. Swinging from faithful ex-partner to fulfilled husband, Bugher portrays the feelings of guilt, and transition from lover to husband with a new-found love, in a clear pendulum swing.

Scott Esposito, as he displayed in JEFFREY and THE NORMAL HEART, has a talent for digging into the emotional feelings and thoughts of gay young men. He clearly displays the disdain for Katharine's imposing herself into his well-functioning family, while also showing momentary flashes of compassion toward her. His real loving relationship with young Ian McLaughlin, as son, Bud, is readily apparent.

As Bud, the very young McLaughlin masterfully presents his numerous lines with fidelity and understanding.

Richard Gould's Park Avenue apartment set is impressive in design and function.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Under the inspired directorial guidance of Sarah May, the brilliantly written MOTHERS AND SONS is a must-see production at Beck. The acting, technical aspects, pacing and attitude are all right on the mark! Bravo!

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From This Author Roy Berko