In the curtain speech of Pandora Productions‘ current offering, Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons,” director Michael J. Drury mentioned the 2014 Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage. He brought up the question many artists and critics began to ask when it seemed the culture war surrounding gay rights was headed strongly toward a victory for love and equality: What is the purpose of an LGBTQ theater post Obergefell v. Hodges?
It’s a question that hovers over McNally’s 2014 play, which centers around a loving and stable gay married couple in modern-day New York. Cal (Shayne Brakefield) is a successful money manager. Will (David Galloway) is a novelist and stay-at-home dad for the couple’s 7-year-old son, Bud (Keegan Conner). A regular family evening is interrupted when they receive a surprise visit from Katherine (Carol Tyree Williams), the mother of Cal’s former lover, André, who died more than 20 years before, during the AIDS crisis.
Cal and Katherine both are still carrying pain from the loss, but Cal has mostly recovered and continued with his life. That’s not the case for Katherine, whose conservative worldview had separated her from her son for over 10 years before his death. The action of the piece plays out in real time over the course of an hour and half one evening.
The script is full of McNally’s heart and turn of phrase, which always has bordered on poetry in certain moments and continues to do so in this Tony-nominated play.
The cast does solid work delivering it, with the play resting on Brakefield. His Cal was so calm and forgiving in most of the first act, I almost worried the actor only had one setting. I shouldn’t have fretted; as the action and emotion speeds up, Brakefield is fully capable of pulling the scabs off old wounds and letting the injuries of Cal’s past bleed again.
William’s Katherine is an apt foil and a counter presence. When he is warm and gracious, she is cool and collected. The heart of the play is the interaction between the two, and their onstage relationship is nuanced and difficult.
McNally charts the generation gap between the middle-aged Cal and the older Katherine, and they speak as surrogates for their respective generations. The script serves in some ways as an extended debate between the two, and as their personal stories are unfolded and retold for the audience, they also ask lingering questions about the culture divide.
Galloway’s Will is a strong supporting presence, and his frequent entrances and exits are used by McNally to modulate the pace of the piece. Galloway has some nice moments, but the real highs and lows of the work are reserved for Cal and Katherine.
As the precocious child Bud, Conner gives a performance that rests on the second grader’s cuteness and McNally’s script, but the kid also has technical chops, with clear diction and strong projection.
Karl Anderson’s set is an impressive New York apartment, nicely realized for a show that is so literal and grounded in the everyday. Theresa Bagan’s lighting design and Alli Ryan’s sound design are both minimal but serviceable.
In his curtain speech, Drury also noted the world may be drastically different since Tuesday’s election, when a red and rising tide swept a conservative government into office, one that has vowed to roll back the social changes of the Obama administration.
The questions posed by “Mothers and Sons,” about forgiveness, blame and love, have an altogether different set of meanings now.
And Drury’s earlier question about whether theater focused on the issues and lives of LGBTQ Americans remains relevant: He answered it with a resounding yes.
“Mother and Sons” continues Nov. 17-20 at the Henry Clay Building, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $22 at the door, or $20 in advance.