It's a bit of a shame, really: We enter the theatre, see the contemporary living room set and the four-person cast list, and think we know what we're in for. "Now's the part where the uninvited guest shows up," we posit. And, right on cue, the doorbell rings, followed by 90 minutes of "we weren't expecting company," clanking glasses, and divulged family secrets. Zach Theatre's Mothers and Sons might come across that way at first (and certainly has some of these elements), but, with its heavy-hitting subject matter and fine performances, this is one play with a sofa center stage that won't put you to sleep.
Acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally skips the formalities and cuts right to the chase: At lights up, the dour Katharine Gerard is already standing in Cal Porter's high-end New York City apartment, scowling while he points out the view of the Met from the window. No, she won't let him take her lavish fur coat – she won't be staying. Mrs. Gerard's contempt for Cal is palpable, and we quickly learn why: About 20 years prior, Cal was in a long-term relationship with her son, André, whose AIDS-related death she has always blamed on Cal. Her visit to his apartment is only their second meeting; their first was at André's memorial service.
So why has she flown up from Dallas to New York two decades after her son's death, dropping in on his former lover whom she barely knows? The answers flow in piecemeal, through anecdotes, play posters, and yellowing photographs stored in a shoebox. With her transparent jealousy and confusion at the arrival of Cal's handsome young husband, Will, and their son, Bud, Mrs. Gerard's intentions come more crisply into focus: She's there to ensure Cal is as miserable as she is. To her chagrin, he seems to be – and is – doing exceptionally well, and is actually living a life with Will that societal barriers simply didn't permit for Cal and André years ago.
Four-time Emmy Award-winner Michael Learned is fantastic as Mrs. Gerard. Serving up acerbic lines and emotional subtleties in equal parts, Learned creates an incredibly realistic, intentionally unlikable character. Zach favorite Martin Burke feeds off her energy, his overwrought portrayal of Cal remaining steady enough that his well-timed outbursts are that much more powerful. Nicholas Rodriguez rounds out the adult cast as Will, adding charm and humor.
The living room itself – that is, the set designed by Michelle Ney – is a gorgeously decorated apartment that many Austinites might be clamoring to buy before the end of the run.
As its name would suggest, Mothers and Sons is a play about families. What McNally accomplishes so well is leaving the overdone dysfunctional nuclear family behind to comment on multiple family types and multiple generations. Mrs. Gerard laments that her death will end the Gerard line. Cal speaks of a different lost generation – that of the pioneers in the fight against AIDS and the death of the stigma and shame they were all too accustomed to at that time. According to Cal, this death shouldn't be celebrated: "First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote .... It's already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away." Dave Steakley and his team at Zach have done an exquisite job of helping us preserve these memories.
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