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BWW Review: MOTHERS AND SONS - and Son and Lover - Clash at Theatre Memphis' Next Stage

In Terrence McNally's MOTHERS AND SONS, now playing at Theatre Memphis' Next Stage, there's something out of place in Jack Yates' smart New York apartment set -- and it has nothing to do with furniture. Rather, it's the presence of Karen Mason Riss's "Katharine," who, unannounced, has flown from her home in Dallas to visit "Cal," the one-time lover of her long-deceased son "Andre." Her anomalous presence is not unlike situating Archie Bunker's armchair in the foyer of the Biltmore. She has arrived with baggage: Not what she uses for travel -- but what she has carried within herself for the last twenty years; and of all times, it's the Christmas season -- and, clutching her fur coat as if it were some time of impenetrable armor, she comes across like some unwelcome Ghost of Christmas Past.

I wish I had been acquainted with McNally's earlier, shorter work, ANDRE'S MOTHER, which introduced the initial, angry encounter between Katharine and Cal, set at a memorial for Andre, an AIDS victim. In the intervening years, Cal, unlike Katharine, has moved from beyond the shadow of Andre's death. Not only has he found a younger partner, "Will," but, in turn, has become a parent to their son-by-surrogate, "Bud." Certainly, Katharine, deprived of her own son and sense of family, feels that insult has been added to injury. (I was thinking of HAMLET's play within a play, in which the Player Queen, protesting her faithfulness to her soon-to-be-dead husband, states, "Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife, / If, once a widow, ever I be wife!") Not only does Katharine partially blame Cal (or, rather, the lifestyle he represents) for the circumstances ending in Andre's death, but she also resents the "family" life he now possesses. In fact, with the passage of time and changing views of society (think MODERN FAMILY), Cal has what has forever been denied Andre; the stereotypical ideas of "family" (which, in Katharine's youth, lay somewhere between the Nelsons and FATHER KNOWS BEST) have, like the horrifying spectre of AIDS itself, become "blips on the radar." Life -- and attitudes -- have gone forward; yet, the weight of Katharine's long-festering anger and grief have impeded her progress; and her presence has the effect of some powerful cathartic ghost. Will the confrontations lead to a healing forgiveness and allow for reconciliation? Will there be a truce of some kind among the characters? (Obviously, you can't rely on me to tell.)

The performances in MOTHERS AND SONS are uniformly excellent. Gregory Alexander's "Cal" is anxious and warm as a man stirred and saddened by reminders of his former relationship, and when his character -- patient and respectful of the hostile presence in his midst -- finally erupts, the effect is devastating. Chase Brother takes a potentially flat character and shades it with humanity and nuance, and that fine young actor Holden Guibao (who bears some watching -- I've been impressed each time I've seen him on stage) is natural and high-spirited as "Bud." (If there's a hope for the future, McNally has wisely found it in the creation of this character.)

Finally, there's the indomitable Ms. Riss herself, an actress too seldom seen these days on stage. Her simmering "Katharine" reminded me of other characters who find themselves in like circumstances, such as "Hannah Pitt," who must come to terms with her son's homosexuality in Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA. (Less familiar, probably, is the Pei-Pei Chang character "Junn," a Cambodian mother who discovers that her late son, killed in an accident, had been in a romantic relationship with a young Brit played by Ben Whishaw in the film LILTING. It's a little known film that's definitely worth a look.) Ms. Riss's tightly wound, wounded mother is a powerful characterization: Don't just listen to those acid-dripping intonations and the hurt and despair in some of her speeches, but watch her accompanying body language -- the stiff spine and posture as she prepares to do verbal battle, the toss of her head as she snaps off her lines. It's as fully developed a performance as you're likely to see.

Veteran director Jerry Chipman (who, not too many years ago, could himself have been an acclaimed "Cal") knows how to guide his proficient cast through McNally's literate, lacerating dialogue. Through February 28.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)