Mothers and Sons
Through October 9
Raleigh Little Theatre, Raleigh
You almost have to delve into the speculative side of evolutionary biology to understand Katherine Gerard, the aging matriarch in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons
. After her outer layer of skin was permanently stripped away—metaphorically, at least—by the death of her son, Andre, some twenty years ago, Katherine developed a protective trait that is on constant display throughout this gripping family drama at Raleigh Little Theatre. The concentrated venom of her views renders her immediate surroundings so toxic that no one can possibly get close enough to attack her.
She brandishes them early in her conversation with Cal, Andre’s former lover, after she drops by unannounced, late one winter afternoon, to return her dead son’s diary to him. Katherine informs Cal that if her son had just been closer to his father he wouldn’t have been homosexual—and therefore would still be alive. When Cal defends himself, asserting that he didn’t kill Andre and certainly didn’t make him gay, Katherine snaps, “Someone did.”
Katherine is facing an existential crisis. With her husband recently deceased, her family line is at an end. During the evening on which the play takes place, Katherine chooses to re-litigate four things she’s never reconciled with: her son’s sexual orientation, his relationship with Cal, his AIDS-related death in 1994, and Cal’s subsequent decisions to move on with his life, evinced by the appearance of his husband, Will (a cogent, clear-eyed Christopher Maxwell), and their six-year-old son, Bud (a precocious Andrew Farmer).
Under Timothy Locklear’s surefooted direction, stage veteran Rebecca Johnston makes a triumphant return to the regional stage and delivers a character study etched in acid. The integrity of Brian Westbrook’s work matches hers—his Cal is candid, compassionate, and wry. Johnston’s body language and facial expressions alert us immediately that the mere sound of Cal’s voice is a profound irritant that Katherine is choosing to temporarily endure. Though she enters set designer Joncie Sarratt’s upscale West Side apartment wrapped in an expensive fur, it’s soon clear that nothing—not the cheery fireplace, the hospitality in a glass of good scotch, or Cal’s sincere attempts at rapprochement—will warm her heart anytime soon.
As Katherine interrogates Cal’s life decisions over the last two decades, McNally grapples with what we ultimately owe the dead, the living, and ourselves. Cal admits it still felt like a betrayal when he started seeing someone after eight joyless years following Andre’s death. As she probes the murky psychology of her bond with her son, Katherine ultimately feels humiliated by her realizations. It falls to Will to find the sorely needed social context among these private losses. In describing future accounts of gay life in a time of plague, he notes, “First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote ... It’s already started to happen.”
McNally’s concerns occasionally send him up onto a soapbox, and Locklear’s direction of Katherine’s most repellent exchanges leaves us momentarily wondering why she isn't shown the door. Still, in this powerful, moving production, three characters from different generations reassess the meanings of their lives, the meanings they've given the dead, and how they—and we—might carry out their legacy.